BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | APR 3, 2017
A couple of months ago, Reuters, NPR, ProPublica reported and a Washington Post correspondent tweeted about Donald Trump’s appearance at the DC Trump Hotel one Saturday, to attend a “pay-to-play” party hosted by Kuwait’s US Ambassador Salem al-Sabah.
Trump was there on Saturday, all right, but the party was the Wednesday before.
Several months ago a pizzeria in Washington DC was exposed as a secret location of a child sex trafficking ring affiliated with Hillary Clinton. It almost got people killed.
The media is still squeezing every bit of life out of an unverified dossier allegedly put together by Russian spies revealing nasty accusations about Donald Trump.
More news. Tom Selleck is dead. And so is Bill Murray. Melania Trump is getting a divorce.
It is all “fake news, or a variation of it.”
The phenomenon is not new. Remember the buzz surrounding the first landing on the Moon in 1972? The landing was a hoax, all of it, created on a movie sound stage in Hollywood. Don’t believe me? It’s been on the Internet for years.
President George W. Bush knew about the attacks on the US on 9/11/2001 before they occurred. And he wasn’t the only President to let it happen. Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance of the attack on Pearl Harbor and did nothing to stop it, knowing that war would pull the country out of the Depression.
It’s all been on the Internet and before that on TV talk shows and before that on magazine racks. Fake news then. Fake news now. Fake news forever.
There is a key difference in this new era of First Amendment sanctitudiness. It is the velocity, the frequency, and the ferociousness of it, all pumped and primed by the steady flow of revenue it brings in for its perpetrators.
Fake news is a big moneymaker, whether it is the stuff made up in someone’s basement and posted in hopes of attracting unsuspecting advertisers, or otherwise respectable journalists, so anxious to attract eyeballs to their tweets they no longer scour information for accuracy. They, as Arianna Huffington once acknowledged of the Huffington Post, get the “news” posted first and let the facts sort themselves out later.
Fake news is a scourge on society and more often now it has real consequences, none of them good. The pizzeria idiocy prompted an armed man to shoot up the place. The radio host who spread the fake news about Comet Ping Pong just recently apologized for his despicable behavior. Children have committed suicide over what they have seen on social media. Riots have been fomented and neighbors turned against neighbors by the lies, deception and ugly rumor mongering.
It’s an insult to human intelligence, and defiles what we used to pride ourselves in, something called “the great American character.” It has become the great American con job, titillating our worst emotions, preying upon our worst desires, proffering false narratives, all for fun and profit.
It doesn’t deserve a second of our time or attention, but it gets it anyway, every hour of every day. It gets us good. It leads us to believe what our character would otherwise tell us not to believe. When our character tells us to turn our heads and plug our ears we do just the opposite. Truth is, we like it. Otherwise it wouldn’t sell, and otherwise respectable journalists wouldn’t retweet, reprint and rebroadcast some of it, with cheap cosmetic qualifiers, like “unverified.”
Now, however, we are faced with a whole new unnerving reality. President Donald Trump’s behavior has allowed the media to absolve themselves of responsibility for fake news or any relative of it. Brian Stelter, the media apologist for CNN who writer Michael Wolfe called quite a ridiculous figure,” opined recently that fake news comes in only two varieties, the trash you see on the Internet and beyond that it is just ”any story Trump doesn’t seem to like.”
The problem of course is that fake news, like lying in politics discussed earlier, has many degrees of dastardliness and sometimes the lines between them are not very clear. It isn’t President Trump’s allegation that the “media is the enemy of the people” juxtaposed with Senator John McCain’s insistence that “if you want to preserve Democracy you have to have a free, sometimes adversary free press.”
There is a vast space in between the two extremes, where there is need for discussion, reason to place blame and an urgency for responsible action.
Was the story about Trump attending the “pay to play” reception fake news, or was it lousy, lazy irresponsible reporting? How much difference is there between the two?
The same can be asked of the Washington Post’s peddling the lie that the Trump Administration did not impose restrictions on the carrying of electronic devices on certain international airlines for security purposes. The real reason, according to no less than three Post articles was Trump countering unfair competition with US airlines from several Middle Eastern airlines that are heavily subsidized by their home countries. “These airlines have been quietly worried for months that President Trump was going to retaliate. This may be the retaliation,” concluded one article. “One (explanation) centers on the administration’s professed protectionist instincts regarding US businesses,” concluded another. A third report, said about the restrictions, “The answer, critics, suggest, is that the electronics ban is not about security.” Guess who were the critics quoted? They were the political scientists who wrote one of the other Post pieces.
In another Post exclusive on March 30, Ann Gearan and Carol Morello revealed that State Department officers have been told not to look Secretary Rex Tillerson in the eye. “Many career diplomats say they still have not met him and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly—or even make eye contact.” Holy, Queen Victoria, Batman. Associated Press says not true.
A Mullings-style side bar: You have to wonder as well, how many “many” are. Many people would be concerned if Secretary Tillerson had met many career diplomats because doing so would have consumed many of the days he has been Secretary. There are so many of them.
What’s the difference between that kind of reporting and the fake news that mainstream media condemns. Not a scintilla of difference. No eye contact? Really?
There is another teeny weeny bit-sized space between those conspiracy theories and the jaundiced journalism now drawing eyeballs to evening news broadcasts. The most notable is CBS’ anchor Scott Pelley, whose scripted sarcasm and anti-Trump venom even drew the attention of the Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan, who seemed to appreciate CBS’ new exploitation of news.
It is the new journalism, an adversarial, righteous, and disturbingly uninformed interpretation of the day’s events that does sometimes come uncomfortably close to untruth.
There used to be what were considered the three great lies:
- The check’s in the mail;
- Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you; and
- I’ll still love you in the morning.
Now there are lies galore cavalcading toward us every hour of every day, from politics, government, media, the marketplace and most explosively, the Internet. There is a rapidly shrinking availability of untainted, legitimate news, reliable information and most importantly, precious knowledge. We are being dumbed down by most of the institutions we once held in high regard and in which we placed our trust and confidence. It is a disturbing and dangerous trend.
And that’s no lie.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.