Just before his famous confrontation with Tucker Carlson on CNN ’s Crossfire two years ago, Jon Stewart was introduced as “the most trusted name in fake news.” No argument there. Stewart, as everyone knows, is the host of The Daily Show, a satirical news program that has been running since 1996 and has spun off the equally funny and successful Colbert Report. Together these shows are broadcast (back to back) more than twenty-three times a week, “from Comedy Central’s World News Headquarters in New York,” thus transforming a modest side-street studio on Manhattan’s West Side into the undisputed locus of fake news.
The trope itself sounds so modern, so hip, so Gawkerish when attached to the likes of Stewart or Stephen Colbert, or dropped from the lips of the ex-Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” anchor Tina Fey, who declared as she departed SNL, “I’m out of the fake news business.” For the rest of us, we’re knee deep in the fake stuff and sinking fast. It comes at us from every quarter of the media—old and new—not just as satire but disguised as the real thing, secretly paid for by folks who want to remain in the shadows. And though much of it is clever, it’s not all funny.
Fake news arrives on doorsteps around the world every day, paid for by You, Time magazine Person of the Year, a.k.a. Joe and Jane Citizen, in one way or another. Take for instance, the U.S. government’s 2005 initiative to plant “positive news” in Iraqi newspapers, part of a $300 million U.S. effort to sway public opinion about the war. And remember Armstrong Williams, the conservative columnist who was hired on the down low to act as a $240,000 sock puppet for the president’s No Child Left Behind program? Williams’s readers had no idea he was a paid propagandist until the Justice Department started looking into allegations of fraud in his billing practices.
Fake news has had its lush innings. The Bush administration has worked hand-in-glove with big business to make sure of it. Together, they’ve credentialed fringe scientists and fake experts and sent them in to muddy scientific debates on global warming, stem cell research, evolution, and other matters. And as if that weren’t enough, the Department of Health and Human Services got caught producing a series of deceptive video news releases— VNRs in p.r.-industry parlance—touting the administration’s Medicare plan. The segments, paid political announcements really, ended with a fake journalist signing off like a real one—“In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting,” and they ran on local news shows all over the country without disclosure. All of this fakery taken together, it may be fair to say that the nation’s capital has been giving Comedy Central a run for its money as the real home of fake news.
But let’s dispense with the satire, whose intentions are as plain as Colbert’s arched eyebrow. And let’s step around the notion of fake news as wrong news: The 1948 presidential election blunder “Dewey Defeats Truman,&rdquo for instance, or even the New York Post’s howler from the 2004 campaign, “Dem Picks Gephardt as VP Candidate.&rdquo Those are honest mistakes, set loose by overweening editors perhaps, but never with the intention to deceive. That wasn’t always the case, as we shall see. In the early days of American journalism, newspapers trafficked in intentional, entertaining hoaxes, a somewhat puzzling period in our history. In modern times, hoaxes have migrated from the mainstream papers to the tabloid outriders like the old National Enquirer, the new Globe, and the hoaxiest of them all, The Weekly World News, purveyor of the “Bat Boy” cover stories.
The mainstream press covers itself with the mantle of authority now. Six of ten Americans polled in 2005 trusted “the media” to report the news “fully, fairly and accurately,” a slight decline from the high-water mark of seven-in-ten during the Woodward-and-Bernstein seventies. What’s more, in a veracity dogfight between the press and the government, Americans say they trust the media by a margin of nearly two to one.
But here’s a question: Can we continue to trust ourselves? Are we prepared for the global, 24-7 fake news cage match that will dominate journalism in the twenty-first century? Let’s call it Factual Fantasy: Attack of the Ax-Grinding Insiders. The boundaries have vanished, the gloves are off, our opponents are legion and fueled with espresso. Both CNN and The New York Times were used by the U.S. military as unwitting co-conspirators in spreading false information, a tactic known as psychological operations, part of an effort to convince Americans the invasion of Iraq was a necessary piece of the war on terror.