THE BLOG
12/28/2016 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2017

The Misinformation Age : Exposing Fake News Does Not Absolve Mainstream Media's Own Failures

The most notable and long-lasting feature of the 2016 election may not be the election of a supremely unqualified and reckless President, but the apotheosis of the Misinformation Age. Its central component is the proliferation of fake news appearing on internet sites and unwittingly gone viral through the algorithms of Facebook and Google. Most, but not all, fake stories were fabricated by right-wing ideologues seeking to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign by making ludicrous charges that, for example, she sold weapons to ISIS or was part of a pedophile sex ring.

It is possible fake news played a significant role in Donald Trump's victory. More engaged with on Facebook than legitimate stories, it could have energizing his base and depressing turnout by those likely to support Clinton. Rebuttals typically failed because the fake stories were more often read by those predisposed to believe the worst of the intended target. The gullible are also resistant to believing they have been fooled; it makes them feel bad and it robs them of the pleasure of reading vile things about those they loathe. The purveyors of fake news also frequently cast doubt on the "neutrality" of fact-checking sites such as snopes.com, politifact.com, and Wikipedia and, of course what Sarah Palin memorably called the "lamestream" news (e.g., The New York Times; CNN)

Fake news is the most egregious form of misinformation citizens trying to understand the world they live in face. But another, long-standing and pervasive, yet less recognized and discussed, phenomenon which also compromises journalistic integrity, is how respectable media companies define "news" and routinely rely upon those in positions of power and authority to validate "facts" and their interpretation.

News organizations, by tradition, define "news" as something that "just happened." In some cases, of course, a story might be uncovered which addresses events which occurred in the past but only become known later, or are evolving (e.g., Trump's symbiotic relationship to Putin). What is normally not defined as "news" or routinely reported, however, are ongoing sociological patterns, whose character is required to put a specific event in context and enable understanding. For example, the kidnapping of a child by a stranger is a horrible event and will generally be a lead story; but, making no mention that the odds of such a thing happening are about 1 in 500,000 unnecessarily frightens parents of small children. Research has shown that people who regularly watch or read local news vastly exaggerate the crime rate in their communities. This can affect their voting behavior and produce draconian legislation when "law and order" candidates share or exploit such misconceptions.

A second problem with mainstream news is deference to authorities, especially government officials, to whom they want access. Journalists are far more apt to seek the opinions of interview/camera-ready political leaders, or their spokespersons, than hunt around for experts with a wide range of views, including those outside the US' relatively narrow spectrum of acceptable perspectives. The economic interests and political views of media owners can also define the limits of what is covered and how. Rupert Murdoch need not worry about Fox News scrutinizing his business practices; The Washington Post, now owned by Jeff Bezos, probably will not feature stories about disgruntled Amazon employees.

In addition, the media defines "objectivity" as even-handedness rather than uncovering the truth. Journalists and news presenters function more as stenographers than sources of accurate information. If "authoritative" representatives from "both sides" (which is not the same as all sides) are interviewed, then they have "succeeded." Fake news is not purposefully created by the mainstream media. It is sometimes naively disseminated because those in authority often tell half-truths or total falsehoods. But it's not always naivete: to challenge, for example, a candidate or government official too vigorously would risk their future willingness to be interviewed. Trump is unique only in being up-front about the quid quo pro.

Perhaps the most disastrous war in American history possibly could have been averted if media were not so credulous. When the debate about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was taking place, the major news outlets almost completely ignored Scott Ritter, a former Marine intelligence officer and the chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998. Ritter was an expert and skeptic. Instead, Judith Miller's influential New York Times coverage, based on her "inside" access to pro-war officials' and their informants' misleading evidence, made the Bush Administration WMD case seem ironclad.

In the current period, why are two of the world's leading journalists with expertise on the Middle East and jihadist groups, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, never interviewed? Their extensive knowledge of all the players---Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Kurds, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia. as well as the jihadists and democratic groups---give their reports a level of depth completely absent in US mainstream media. By contrast, why is William Kristol, a right-wing pundit, who has an almost perfect record of false predictions, and was a major cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, an honored talking head, along with many others whose punditry has been discredited by events?

The failures of the mainstream media are of long duration, particularly in covering foreign affairs. Nationalism (and, for television news, jingoism) narrows "legitimate" dissent to means not ends: why we aren't we winning, not should we win? Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS said that Trump's success "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." So is war; audiences and readership soar. Perhaps that is an additional reason WMD were taken at face value. Even the recent exposure that Russia hacked the Democratic Party and tried to help Trump win, though reprehensible, is rarely discussed in the context of our long history of trying to manipulate the politics of democratic countries, or even overthrow popular but "unfriendly" elected leaders.

The mainstream media's practices noted above are not the same as those that govern Breitbart News or even Fox News. They unquestionably have greater respect for accuracy, but should not allow their condemnation of fake news to divert attention from their own responsibility in creating a profound state of ignorance among the citizenry at a time when the next President will be a man who has devoted his life to greed and demagoguery, and has no respect for the law, democracy or knowledge.