From the White House down to city halls in rural hamlets across this country, politicians are using the term “fake news” to discredit anything they encounter in the media that they deem negative or that doesn’t fit their self-interests.
As traditional news media outlets continue to struggle in business models that are no longer fully relevant to the digital age in which we live, work and consume news today, the rise of the “fake news” attacks have only served to further weaken the legitimate news gathering and reporting entities on which the Internet and social media depend.
The hard truth is that if traditional newspapers, broadcast news operations, and even new digital news gathering operations that have yet to gain enough market share to pay the freight on their overhead go out of business and disappear, the American public will be left with something far less than news – “fake” or otherwise.
Former Estonian president Toomas Hendrick IIves, a psychologist born in Sweden but educated in the U.S., perhaps said it best: “Fake news is cheap to produce. Genuine journalism is expensive.” Ilves is widely acknowledged as passionate spokesman warning of the dangers of cyberattacks on democracies and the social media abuses that threaten elections on a global scale.
With President Donald Trump’s steady drumbeat of “fake news” allegations against CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta and others, there’s little doubt why politicians farther down the political food chain engage in similar attacks. For Trump, the “fake news” battle cry often seems to take on the guise of political sport rather than legitimate complaint.
Closer to home, Gov. Phil Bryant – who has a long track record of opening doors in state government that had previously been closed to traditional media – has engaged in the “fake news” defense. Bryant, in the not-too-distant past, was a victim of an actual fake news report falsely linking his family to the grisly 1955 murder of civil rights martyr Emmett Till.
The Urban Twist, a self-described digital news magazine, offered up the bogus report and based it loosely on a 2016 USA Today story by William Tomer. Later in 2017, Tomer and USA Today offered the following correction: “An earlier version of this story contained a quote asserting that a relative of Gov. Phil Bryant was involved in the murder of Emmett Till. The assertion is unsubstantiated, and Bryant said in February that it is false.”
So pardon Bryant if he’s on the “fake news” train. But as social media engagement increases, the national wholesale adoption of “fake news” as the first strike defense by politicians reading things in the media that they don’t like or disagree with carries with it an awful danger.
Without the practice of real journalism by real journalists – reporters, editors, producers, broadcasters – in which these journalists attend the events that the public is too busy or otherwise occupied to attend and observe, what are we left with? By and large, we are left with propaganda generated by either the left or the right in politics, by public relations professionals with inarguable agendas, or finally just unverified, or otherwise unreliable crap someone posts on the Internet as fact.
The Internet offers valuable, enriching and unique information. Much of it is entertaining. Some of it is true. Some of it is also total and unvarnished BS. New media sites from across the political spectrum now play a vital role in what is the new journalism. Much of that is citizen journalism and it’s intensely valuable. But journalism and a free press remains a cornerstone of our basic American freedoms.
But the “fake news” battle cry threatens to erode and eventually take down valuable, legitimate news gathering organizations who are fighting the most important battles in defense of the First Amendment – be that on Capitol Hill or at the Mississippi State Capitol or at the Calhoun County Courthouse in Pittsboro, Mississippi.
Bulletin: News you disagree with, news that offends or insults you, may well be the truth. What you do with that knowledge is up to you, but better you get the opportunity to make your own decisions based on those reports than to be left to a slim diet of government-approved announcements.