Active McFarland: Exercising Democracy

Reflections on Fake News

Jeff Berger

This article was originally published on Wise Guys, Apr. 17, 2017

Recently I read an article by Sharon Noguchi in my local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury, about teachers helping students to distinguish between fake news and real news. The article focused on teenagers who naively get their news from the internet. The key paragraph in the article reads: “Lessons on fake news fit right into the state’s Common Core State Standards, which encourage primary-source research, discussion and critical thinking—answering the why questions over the what. Social studies teachers hope the debate will prompt a resurgence in their subject, which has taken a back seat in an era focused on math and English test scores, said Rachel Reinhard, site director of the UC Berkeley History Social Science Project. ‘If there ever were a mandate for meaningful history instruction, we’re in it right now’, she said.”

Knowledge of history is crucial to all analysis of what we read in the news. Without this knowledge, there is virtually no way to determine why something is happening. Everything that happens today is a consequence of the past. And yet, teenagers have very little first hand-experience of the past; and most of them have read very little history and lack much interest in it. Thus, teenagers are easily mislead or deceived by what they hear in the news. They are heavily influenced by their parents, teachers, peers, and social media. Thus, young people inherit the biases of others around them. Only by experiencing life as an adult and by reading from a variety of sources can people begin to discern what news is fake and what is not, or which interpretations are plausible and which are not.

The newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) honed the art of “yellow journalism,” which Wikipedia describes as “a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.” One of Hearst’s most notorious uses of yellow journalism resulted in the cry “Remember the Maine.” The Maine was a U.S. battleship that mysteriously exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, in 1898. The newspapers claimed that the Spanish were responsible, and it was used to coax a reluctant President William McKinley to invade Cuba. It turned out that the Spanish were not responsible. The Maine did explode, but it was an accident. The alleged attack on the Maine was fake news, and it began the era of American imperialism.

Young people have not developed their own independent philosophy or ideology. I, for one, have not significantly changed my philosophy or ideology since I was a teenager. By the time I was 20 years old I was an atheist, existentialist, environmentalist, and liberal Democrat. I remain this way more than 40 years later. If that makes me close-minded, then I am guilty. I do listen to what Republicans have to say, but I can be very selective. Why, for example, do I need to waste my time listening to a white supremacist like David Duke or a war monger like John Bolton?

I admire the way Jon Stewart developed a cordial relationship with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, after all the years he bashed O’Reilly on The Daily Show. I’m also impressed with the way Bill Maher is friendly with Ann Coulter, who does nothing but insult liberals. I watch Maher’s Real Time show regularly, but I do not enjoy the shows when a shouting match occurs between right-wing and left-wing guests. On the other hand, I appreciate listening to moderate Republicans—people such as Michael Steele and John McCain. Nowadays I have lowered my standards, because I will listen to any Republican who is willing to challenge Trump’s “alternative facts.” In particular, when it comes to foreign policy, there is nobody I trust more than Colin Powell, although he chooses to remain on the sidelines. I tend to trust the older, moderate Republicans more than the new batch of Republican ideologues.

When I was in Budapest and Prague a few years ago, I had the chance to watch Russian Television, or RT. It was obvious to me that RT was a Russian propaganda station. I found it shocking that in these NATO countries the authorities let RT be broadcast. Much of the news I watched on RT was highly critical of the United States, but most of it was actually true. However, the complete absence of any critical reflection about Russia tended to invalidate its point of view for me. Nevertheless, I can’t criticize RT without also criticizing Fox News. I therefore criticize them both. I can’t obtain news from Fox News for the same reason that I can’t obtain news from RT.

When Bill O’Reilly questioned Donald Trump on Fox News about Vladimir Putin being a killer, Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?” This comment inspired unanimous outrage from both the left and the right. Why? Because in the United States, it is politically unacceptable to say that there is an equivalency between U.S. crimes and Russian crimes. And yet, that attitude is a bias that the Russian people do not share. The Russians have been taught that the United States has a history of genocide of Native Americans and slavery of black people. I don’t know if Russians have been taught that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians. Nevertheless, talking about the distant past obscures the fact that the United States, for example, leads the world in its per capita rate of people incarcerated in prisons and is the only country that has turned prisons into a profit-making private industry—just to mention a couple of unseemly facts that reflect negatively on our nation today. The United States also leads the world in opiate addiction. It is these kinds of facts that are touted on RT.

The problem with Trump’s response to Bill O’Reilly was not exactly what he said, but that he is a flawed messenger of America’s guilt. Nor do any of his policies begin to correct the problems that are associated with this guilt. Quite the opposite, Trump wants to reverse Barack Obama’s stated policy of reducing the privatization of America’s prisons, and he would prefer to add more prisoners to Guantanamo and torture them if he thinks it is necessary. Through his actions, Trump will only add to RT’s justifications for criticizing the United States.

A few weeks ago, Donald Trump set off a firestorm when he tweeted that Obama had ordered a wiretap on him. Trump tweeted this as a fact, but he heard this claim on Fox News. When Trump later modified his story by saying that Obama had asked the British to spy on him, he admitted that he heard it on Fox News—from Andrew Nepolitano, a Fox  “judicial analyst” whom Trump called a “very talented legal mind.” But Trump will never admit his mistakes. When asked about the British spying story by a reporter, he shrugged and told the reporter to ask Fox News. Trump will never apologize because he thinks he is perfect and always blames his mistakes on others. The bucks stops somewhere else.

In 2015, Brian Williams was dismissed from his prime-time spot on the NBC Nightly News after it was revealed that he had misrepresented events that he covered in Iraq in 2003. NBC eventually hired him back, but moved him to MSNBC, where he now hosts The 11th Hour. Unlike Nepolitano, Williams was not motivated by a political agenda but by his own self-aggrandizement. But these kinds of lies and misrepresentations occur on all mainstream news stations.

Sometimes reporters just make innocent mistakes, such as when a Time magazine reporter misreported that Trump had replaced the Martin Luther King statue in the White House. The reporter apologized within minutes via Twitter, but Trump continued to use the incident to say how “dishonest” the media is. Unlike Trump, however, honest reporters apologize for their mistakes.

CNN is another interesting case. For years I stopped watching CNN because it seemed very bland. They typically reported the what, but rarely explained the why (except when their Middle East experts were explaining that theater of the world). They preferred to remain neutral with respect to domestic U.S. politics. It didn’t work for CNN as a business model. But then Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s flagship foreign-affairs show GPS, called Trump a bullshit artist, and Trump began calling CNN the fake news station. Suddenly CNN’s credibility among liberals soared and their ratings increased. That’s the way of the world today. So much of what comes out of the mouths of the current batch of Republicans comes under the category of fake news. And Trump’s genius has always been to accuse his opponents of the very transgressions that are, in fact, more applicable to him. It’s hard to explain to a conservative what fake news is when Trump says that true stories are fake and fake stories are true.

Much of our current dilemma with news actually began with Dick Cheney in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. Cheney leaked information to The New York Times about weapons of mass destruction, and before long he was quoting the newspaper about weapons of mass destruction. Nobody seemed to recognize the circular feedback loop. Cheney was a master at fooling people. Sometimes it took Jon Stewart digging up old video tapes to show how Cheney and Fox News operated. Another favorite ploy of Fox is to talk about what “they” are saying. I think “they” are the Fox News employees standing around a water cooler.

News media and the internet are not the only potential sources of information. Once upon a time people read nonfiction books. I read a lot of nonfiction. However, the same skepticism of news sources needs to apply to books. Many authors have a political bias. Whenever I read a book, I consider the philosophy and ideology of the writer. When I consider reading a book, I usually examine the book reviews on and judge the points of view of the reviewers. I prefer looking at the criticisms rather than the praises. Some of the best books are the ones that have the most polarized reviews; or they can be among the worst. I will never read a book if I know ahead of time that I will disagree with the author, but I also don’t want to be one of the choir. Mostly I look for a book that will give me new insight, but that will probably reinforce my existing point of view. Again, if that makes me close-minded, living in my own bubble, then I am guilty.

One of the most difficult types of news stories or books to interpret entails a so-called conspiracy theory. The classic conspiracy theory is that the CIA and the Mafia conspired to assassinate John F. Kennedy, but there are many others. (I happen to believe the JFK theory but that is another matter.) In cases like this it often seems that authors are predisposed to select certain facts and are quick to conclude that something is true because there is no other plausible explanation. Maybe they are right; or maybe they don’t have all the facts. This type of logic may be necessary when there is no smoking gun, but it is dangerous to rely on such logic.

One of the cable stations that I watch a lot is CNBC, in spite of the fact that I disagree with the economic philosophy of literally all of CNBC’s analysts. CNBC is a cheerleader for Wall Street. Although I am not a fan of Wall Street, I am interested in what happens on Wall Street and I respect the analysts’ knowledge. They are very smart people, and many are Democrats. I’m also very interested in what the Federal Reserve is saying and doing. So, like it or not, CNBC is where I get such news. The CNBC pundits have a conservative agenda, but CNBC is not a purveyor of fake news. So, it is not true that I am completely closed-minded. It’s okay to have an agenda. I just want the pundits on these news stations to be honest, even if I disagree with them.

Like so many other people since the 2016 election, I read George Orwell’s 1984, which was the first time I read this great novel that was first published in 1946. One of the striking features about Orwell’s books—both 1984 and Animal Farm—are that they are loved by both liberals and conservatives. Both of these stories are allegories or parodies of the Soviet Union. The latest controversies with Russia could be the reason for 1984’s new-found popularity, but I don’t think this is the main reason. Nor do I think the concept of “Big Brother” has much relevancy today—or at least not because of Donald Trump. Rather, the relevancy to the Trump presidency comes from the 1984 notion that “he who controls the past controls the present. And he who controls the present controls the future.” In 1984 the Party, which is a parody of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, frequently rewrites the past and re-educates the public. The Party demands that if it says that two plus two is five, then its Party members must believe it. If they refuse to believe it, then they will be literally tortured. To stop the torture it is not sufficient just to say that two plus two is five. The torture will not stop until the Party becomes convinced that the Party member believes that two plus two is five. And yet, the 1984 protagonist named Winston Smith defies the Party knowing that someday he will be caught and tortured. Why? Because he would rather be tortured or die than to be insane. For Winston Smith, believing in alternative facts is to be insane. This is how I feel every time I listen to Donald Trump, Shawn Spicer, or Kellyanne Conway.

So, how can we teach children to recognize fake news when they see it? As Rachel Reinhard said, we can’t allow social studies to take a back seat to math and English. And as Sharon Noguchi suggests, students need to learn to do critical thinking. I would urge students to question the motives of the source of their information. They might start by reading 1984.

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