The Fake News Panic has reached an advanced stage in which the smart take on the situation—published at CJR and elsewhere—is to call for more direct descriptions of the problem: lies, propaganda, deception. “The label,” Washington Post Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote Sunday, “has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”
That genie is already out of the bottle. Search for the term on Twitter on any given day for a quick window into its meaninglessness, particularly among conservatives and Trump supporters. InfoWars and other culture-war outfits have long been using it as a cudgel against the mainstream media. Since these outlets don’t attempt to apply journalistic standards to the content they publish, their whataboutism on fake news provides them with a sort of relativist high ground.
Which is to say: While the press should indeed label this specific brand of digital smut more clearly, the overall debate takes place on inherently unfavorable ground. There are too many actors playing unfairly, too many moles to whack. And the sheer amount of energy directed in recent months toward this supposedly new scourge would be better turned inward. Left out of most critiques of fake news is mainstream outlets’ own role in misinforming the public, and how we should compare the end effects of well-intentioned journalistic misfires to legitimate hoaxes produced to affect politics or make a few bucks off of programmatic digital ads. That’s a problem as we—the media—attempt to patch our relationship with the public.
Take The Washington Post. Over the past two months, the newspaper has published two supposed bombshell scoops showing, first, that the Kremlin was behind a massive fake news operation in the United States, and then that Russia had hacked the US electrical grid. The former blurred the definition of fake news by relying on a report from an anonymous internet group that lumped left-wing news sites in with Kremlin-backed stooges. The computer in question in the latter turned out to not be connected to the electrical grid at all. Both stories received embarrassing editor’s notes after the fact—something many dishonest actors in this debate wouldn’t publish—though the damage was already done.
Such screw-ups are by no means “fake news” in the narrow definition the mainstream media has collectively chosen. But it’s worth pondering how the final impact of such flubs stacks up next to full-bore forgeries spread online.
A BuzzFeed News analysis in late December found that the 23 best-performing fake news stories on Facebook in 2016 combined for about 10.6 million engagements—shares, reactions, and comments—or about 460,000 apiece. It is unclear how many of those people believed such content to be true. At the Post, with hundreds of thousands of print subscribers and one of the top-trafficked news sites in the world, it is safe to assume the number of readers on its Russian hacking scoops at least approached a similar ballpark. That’s to say nothing of additional reactions spreading the faux allegations on social media, radio, and television.
There are countless other examples that raise similar questions of misinformation. Megyn Kelly, she of the recent high-stakes television news bidding war, portrayed the New Black Panther Party as a threat to democracy over numerous segments of her popular Fox News show in 2010. Fake news? The New York Post plastered two “bag men” on its front page in 2013, portraying them as persons of interest in the Boston Marathon bombing. False! A number of news organizations this year reported that the FBI had “reopened” its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server just weeks before the election. Nah!
Intent matters, of course, which is an important difference. But if one of the press’s post-election missions is to regain some semblance of public trust, that argument alone doesn’t recognize the full breadth of public skepticism. The Right’s mistrust of the mainstream media stretches back decades, while the Left, with awful journalism about weapons of mass destruction a not-so-distant memory, sees some of the recent reporting on Russia as similarly jingoistic. Everyone in the middle is left wondering whether the press is unfairly helping or hurting the president-elect, just as the local media that knows communities best continues to atrophy.
The fake news mania misses that broader context and potentially complicates the way forward. The battle plays to the moral relativism of InfoWars and its counterparts. The unfair reality is that the press needs to do better. A more affirmative case to trust us, not them—through sharp reporting that recognizes its own faults—is in order. While fake news and bad reporting both threaten the accuracy of information that reaches the public, journalists have real power to affect just one of the two.