“News” is one of my favorite four-letter words. Since I was a kid and watched the newsreels that preceded the feature films at movie theaters, before television, I have been engaged by the events that unfold around us on a daily basis. When they installed the public address system in my elementary school, instruction would stop for a half hour every Friday morning as “Let’s Look at the News,” a New York City-sponsored program, was transmitted to all the classrooms. The format involved student panelists each week, and I listened with great interest. I was even on the panel at the radio station when I was in fifth grade, which necessitated my reading the daily newspapers throughout the week. So in hindsight, I guess it is not so surprising that I wound up being a newspaper publisher, despite my teenage plans for a different direction. Hearing the news and interpreting its implications are as much a habit for me as breathing.
So you can understand my distress at the current tsunami of fake news that has overtaken us. News, by definition and tradition, must be factual. If not, it is either a parody in the guise of news; or it is opinion or partisan, clearly presented as such; or it is propaganda, to be thus evaluated by the viewer. Now, those in the business of offering the news can certainly make mistakes, sometimes colossal ones, as in telling us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction rather than emphasizing the fog and controversy surrounding that conclusion. Respected journalists told us that as fact, and though they believed what they were sharing, they were wrong.
That is different, however, from the plethora of so-called news stories that are deliberately fabricated and shared every day with millions thanks to access to social media. Everyone with a digital device can now become a publisher and disseminate half-truths, conspiracy theories and flagrant falsehoods as news, without any form of vetting. The more gullible or, perhaps, less informed, or those enjoying the partisan slant, like tabloid readers, are rapt viewers. Sometimes they respond, as did the North Carolina guy we heard about who shot up a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. because he heard that there was a child-abuse ring operating there. While extreme, it is not any more false than the news that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump before our recent election. Regardless of one’s political orientation, that sort of phony and hyperpartisan stuff is alarming — or should be. Further troubling is how to deal with the question of vetting versus censorship.
Worst, as a result of the proliferation of so much fake news, is the confusion it sows about all news. What’s true, what’s a lie? Whom and what to believe? The marvel of the internet and mobile phones to bring inside news about brutality of dictatorships or other previously secret horror stories to the world’s attention and thereby reduce their occurrence has now been inverted. All sorts of false horror stories can now be broadcast as truths. The impact on the real news is to diminish the effect and value of good reporting.
As Thomas Jefferson preached, without an informed public, democracy is not possible.
Ironically, speaking of Jefferson, he or his supporters placed deceitful and, in today’s view, libelous stories in early newspapers when he ran against John Adams for president, and Adams’ followers did the same. So this fake news epidemic is not something new; only having so many decentralized outlets for transmitting the lies is. Somehow we will sort this out, just as they did two centuries ago.
Meanwhile, read the hometown newspaper. We never lie and while we are not always accurate, publishing corrections for our inadvertent mistakes in the following issue, we hold fact to be sacred.