OPED: The truth about fake news
Recently, in my role at The Progressive magazine, I edited a column written by a woman who just lost her job at Carrier Corporation in Indianapolis. She recalled going out in the rain to vote for Donald Trump, based on his public promise to save these jobs, and now feels betrayed.
I verified not only that the woman was among the 215 workers laid off by Carrier in mid-January but also that it rained in Indianapolis on Nov. 8, 2016. She even sent me a photo, taken that day for another purpose, showing her car parked outside the polling place, on wet pavement.
I've been a professional journalist for more than three decades. This is a huge part of the job — doing everything possible to ensure accuracy. Every journalist I know cares deeply about getting things right, making it especially painful to see our profession demonized by a president who spews lies and distortions at every turn.
But more is at stake here than just the hurt feelings of conscientious journalists. Trump's efforts to devalue truth threaten to undermine our democracy.
Since becoming president, Trump has used the term "fake news" more than 150 times, according to a tally by PolitiFact, usually to disparage accurate reporting he does not like. Meanwhile, there has been a proliferation of outlets that traffic in actual fake stories, which, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, make their way around the world before the truth has a chance to put on its pants.
Vanity Fair recently compiled a list of the "six biggest fake-news stories of 2017." These included insane claims, stoked by Fox News, that the Clintons conspired to murder a Democratic National Committee staffer and a baseless report that "over 25 million Hillary Clinton votes were completely fraudulent, meaning that the Democratic candidate actually lost the popular vote by a huge margin."
Supporters of disgraced U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore concocted stories that one of his accusers was arrested for lying and that The Washington Post was offering money to women to make false allegations against him. One shadowy outfit even sent a woman to the Post with a false story about Moore, which the paper promptly recognized and exposed.
A study released Feb. 6 by the University of Oxford found that the most prolific disseminators of sensationalist and conspiratorial fake stories are right-wing Twitter users. The researchers wrote that "a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share."
But it's not fair to conclude that the president's supporters are more gullible than others. They may simply be targeted more often — especially given Trump's embrace of lying as a strategy for keeping the support of his base.
In an age when anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can spread falsehoods, we all have a civic duty to be discerning news consumers. There is a reason people should give more credence to The Washington Post than some guy in his underwear in his mother's basement.
Real journalists take pains to make sure what they report is correct. They may not always be perfect, but they always try to be. That is something that deserves respect — whether or not it comes from the White House.
— Bill Lueders is managing editor of The Progressive magazine and editor of the Progressive Media Project. This column was produced by the Project and distributed by Tribune News Service.