I have some startling news for you.
Fake news is not new.
As long as there have been presses to print information, and technological methods of transmitting that information to another place, there have been people who knowingly say things they know are untrue, with the hope that people will believe it, and pass it on.
One of the most devious fake news stories was targeted at Abraham Lincoln, during the toughest time of his life.
In the summer of 1864, with the Civil War body count piling up, and even Republicans proclaiming that Lincoln was “already beaten” in the upcoming election, a shocking story spread throughout the nation: President Lincoln, while touring the battlefield at Antietam, declared that the scene was “gloomy” and asked a companion to sing a lively song.
“We know that this story is incredible, that it is impossible that a man who could be elected President of the United States could so conduct himself over the fresh-made graves of the heroic dead. When this story was told us we said it was incredible, impossible, but the story is told on such authority that we know it to be true.”
This shocking story, published in the well-known New York World – which was well-known for its anti-Lincoln views, was first, according to the World, printed in a newspaper called the “Essex Statesman.”
However, wrote historian Robert S. Harper, “it is now believed that such a newspaper never existed.” The publisher of the New York World simply made up the story, as well as the paper it came from.
And yet, Harper concluded, the story “set the country to talking, and it hurt Lincoln deeply, perhaps more than any slur published about him.”
It’s been in the news this year, as it should be.
It used to be difficult to find fake news. You have to get dressed, get in your car, and drive to the grocery store, where tabloids full of fake news – from UFO sightings to celebrity scandals – line the shelves right beside the check-out counter.
But now, you can have fake news delivered to your computer or smart phone, for free.
On several occasions this year, I pointed out that “news” items shared by my friends on Facebook are not (and could not possibly be) true.
Sometimes the fake news came from newspapers that were actually made up, with the hope that people would believe those stories, and pass them on. The Denver Post recently wrote a long story describing why a story in “The Denver Guardian” could not possibly be true.
Many of these sites are created by teens or 20-somethings from European countries looking to make a living on the ads they sell – usually to businesses that are as illegitimate as the news they support.
Sometimes, fake news is first passed on as “real news” from sites that write stories as satire, such as The Onion, where the writer hopes you will read it and chuckle or laugh, and pass it on to other people who will chuckle or laugh, knowing that it’s satire. Even though the Onion’s header describes it as “farcical,” many people have shared stories, believing they are real. It is indeed alarming how many people will read a web site that is marked “Satire” and still believe it, anyway.
Other fake news comes from politically-motivated organizations, which share information that looks like news in photos or graphics (called “memes” in social media lingo). On the left, there is “Occupy Democrats,” and on the right, groups like “Conservative News.” Organizations like these produce their own stories, which may or may not have an actual root in the news, and spread their stories as if they are as fact-based and unbiased as we expect news to be. Usually, they are not, but you are asking for a fight if you say so to the person who shares it.
With the strong feelings that political elections inspire, it was natural for people to read and share stories that seemed to confirm what they believe. And the sites were designed to look, at least at first glance, like a real newspaper; they may even have photos that make it look more legit.
But, to say the obvious, it’s not.
So, how can we know if news is real or fake?
Slate recently ran a story about the efforts to teach high school students the difference between real and fake news.
I have a few suggestions of my own:
First, consider the source. Does it come from one of those sites I mentioned above? Some of those sites do have accurate information, but often their stories are tainted by their political vies.
Second, research it for yourself. Look up the issue in a search engine (Google is my first choice) and see if other news sites are sharing that information. There is fierce competition among news organizations and if one site has a true story, you can bet others will have it too.
But, a word of caution: Sometimes if you search for something, you will find several web sites that tell the same story, but all of the sites seem to simply be passing on the information from the first site. Make sure that your search to verify what the first post claims does not merely parrot what the first site says.
Third, accept the fact that whatever side you are on, some times the people on your side are wrong. Sometimes they are even nuts. Accept it. Acknowledge it. Try to get your people to make better choices.
And fourth, and this is hard for me to says as someone who has tried to stick to real news for a quarter century: Sometimes “legitimate, non-partisan mainstream news” turns out to be fake.
I first found this out for myself in 2000, after the last really controversial U.S. election.
I was looking up the court filings in the Bush/Gore election when I came across this startling fact: Al Gore’s lawyers did not merely ask for a “recount.” They asserted that by “evincing” voting information that their side actually won the election, and urged the court to take the incredibly unusual action of declaring the Gore-Lieberman ticket the winner in Florida, even before the recount was over.
I read this and said, “Wow.”
I wrote about this for my column in the Washington Evening Journal, about 100 miles south of Vinton.
And I waited. I watched the TV news, wondering what ABC, NBC and CBS would have to say (this was before Fox and MSNBC became more prevalent).
And, of this shocking legal demand, all three of those networks said: Nothing.
Look it up.
You are probably not going to find any reports on the TV networks sites about Gore’s demand; although I did see small stories in two newspapers that mentioned this, without, however, actually quoting what Gore’s lawyers actually wanted: In the “prayer for relief” section was a demand that the court “order that the election canvassing commission certify that the true and accurate results of the 2000 election in Florida is that the electors of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman received the majority of votes in the election.” See it for yourself, HERE (on page 22).
I watched on TV, as reporters stood outside federal court buildings, holding copies of legal filings and saying, “We are trying to figure out what it means.”
What they should have done is sat down and figured out what it meant before turning on the cameras.
But they didn’t.
There were a couple other cases where main stream media people got busted big-time for fake news. Dan Rather earned early retirement from CBS by using fake documents for a 2004 story about George W. Bush and his days with the Texas Air National Guard. And Brian Williams earned a time-out at NBC after military families caught him lying about his helicopter being shot in Iraq.
But those stories were not revealed as fake until long after they aired.
Sometimes, a story is so wrong that it has to be countered immediately.
In 2012, I was watching the evening news, when an ABC anchor interviewed a “health editor” who predicted that “thousands of children could die” because of a shortage of a leukemia drug called methotrexate.
That seemed horrible, so I looked it up. Turns out the health editor expert was all wrong. Yeah, there was a temporary shortage of the drug. But no, not one child missed one dose. See that story HERE.
One of the most glaring recent cases when “mainstream” news turned out to be fake news came from Ferguson, Mo., in November of 2014.
I was watching, with most of America, the press conference in which St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch was announcing the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson/Michael Brown case. After discussing the difficulty of the case, and reviewing its history, McCulloch announced that the grand jury had decided that Wilson’s shooting of the teen was justified (a U.S. Department of Justice review would come to the same conclusion).
As soon as McCulloch said this, the TV anchors who were covering the press conference turned off McCulloch’s microphone and turned on their own, thus missing the most important part of the story.
McCulloch went on to say that many witnesses – including the one who said that Wilson shot Brown in the back as he walked away with his hands in the air – had stuck to their stories, even after being confronted with evidence to the contrary.
“Fake news was born in August of 2014,” said Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, referring to the media’s reporting of the “hands up, don’t shoot” mantra which Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart labeled a “lie.” Note that both Clarke and Capehart are black and Capehart is a firm Black Lives Matter supporter.
But instead of hearing McCulloch’s words, the media representatives whose job was telling us what McCulloch was saying instead chose to give us their own, less-informed words.
Fake news, indeed.
Yes, of course: It’s much more likely that the stories you read in newspapers whose names you know or TV news broadcasts is going to be more accurate than the crazy-sounding stuff shared on Facebook
Except, when it’s not.
It’s up to us, the reader or listener, to verify absolutely anything we read or hear in the news.
But why? Why do major, reliable news organizations mess up so often?
I have a few theories, but will just list the two I think are most important.
First, it’s about being first, instead of the first one to get it right.
Remember the Martha Stewart case? Reporters went into the courtroom with different-colored handkerchiefs – one color for guilty, one for not guilty. Then when the verdict was read, they ran outside waving the handkerchiefs to colleagues so they could be the first to report it.
Second, news executives know that celebrity sells. That’s part of Trump’s success; his fame inspired TV bosses to give him way more air time than the other candidates. Many people in my business are now writing about how maybe, Trump should have not gotten so much free air time.
It’s hard to believe in this age of Twitter and Facebook and reality TV, but celebrity is not a new problem.
In 1884, a Chicago columnist wrote about a foreign leader who was known for his wealth and flashy lifestyle. Actually, he wrote about how newspaper editors were obsessed with writing about this character, rather than real news.
The Akoond of Swat, a poem by Eugene Fields, expresses his frustration with having to write about some lame non-newsworthy celebrity, instead of writing about real news that matters to Americans. Read that story HERE.
We need more news writers like Fields — along with more news readers (and writers!) who will read before they respond, search before they share, and understand before they turn on their microphones or computers.