Sunday, July 16, 2017

What is “Fake News”?

by Bill Bernstein
The term “Fake news” or inevitably on social media "#FakeNews," became current largely with last year's presidential election and its coverage.  Famously Pres Trump dismissed a CNN reporter's repeated questions at a press conference with the comment “You're fake news.”

But what is fake news?  And why is this so popular now?  For starters fake news is not new, although the variations we are seeing are.  In the past, propaganda, deliberate misinformation, and “yellow journalism” were all common occurrences where governments, politicians or newspaper publishers all wanted something more than to report news. 

But fake news is not simply “facts or opinions I disagree with.”  Truth can be challenging sometimes.
There are many variations of fake news.  Some are obviously fake: stories about Prince Harry having a secret wedding in Las Vegas are simply fiction.  These are easy to spot, as are most “conspiracy” stories. So here are some tips to recognize FakeNews stories:

1).  Any story with “might have” or “could have” is speculation, and very likely #FakeNews. 

Here's a howler from CNNMoney online: The headline reads: Ethics watchdog says White House lawyer might have broken rules.

That sounds like a member of the Trump staff broke ethics rules or committed some kind of crime.  But you have to read in to the story to discover that 1) the “rules” of the headline were ones the administration itself created, 2) even those rules don't apply to people who don't actually work for the administration in any official capacity, in this case Carl Icahn, who was merely an unofficial advisor.  The entire case comes down to an interview the attorney alleged to have violated the rules gave where he stated Icahn was not an official advisor to the President.  And by the way, the “Ethics Watchdog”, Walter Schaub resigned about three weeks later.  Probably for getting into trouble pushing a fake sensationalized story like this.

2) Any story where the headline or lead is not supported by facts given in the body of the story is #FakeNews.

Sensational headlines that oversell the story in the article are by definition #FakeNews. Here's an excellent example of the genre from the Tennessee Star: The headline reads: Mayor Megan Barry Says The Constitution Does Not Apply Here in Nashville: ‘I Am Committed to Meeting the Goals of the Paris Agreement – Even if the President Is Not’

Now, if Megan Barry says The Constitution does not apply in Nashville then there should be a quotation or statement from Mayor Barry that says exactly that, or substantively that.  Read in the story and there is no such thing.  President. Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change.  Mayor Barry condemned the decision, unsurprisingly, and affirmed her commitment to instituting policies that would follow the principles in the Paris Accord.  A mayor instituting policies in her own city is not a violation of the Constitution, however poor the policies are.  The only proof offered to support the headline is this statement in the story: Constitutional law experts around the country have stated that such declarations are in direct violation of Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution of the United States.

The article cites no Constitutional law experts saying any such thing.  And the assertion is prima facie absurd.

3) Any story with George Soros in it that is not about George Soros is very likely #FakeNews.

Soros is a billionaire hedge fund manager who has a charitable foundation and gives heavily to left wing causes.  But in the conservative world Soros takes the position of “International Banker” (or “International Jew Banker” to hold up an old stereotype) and is always a mysterious shadowy figure intent on harming America and its way of life. In this, Soros replaces “the Rothschilds” (the prototypical International Jew Bankers) and “the Rockefellers” (often identified erroneously as Jewish by anti Semites) in the role of conspirator against American values. Here's a particularly egregious example: Vartan Gregorian: Islamic Trojan Horse.

Side note: Any article signed with a pseudonym (here “Politically Incorrect”) is almost certainly fake news as real journalists want their names known. Now Vartan Gregorian is a well known academic and while he was born in Iran he comes from an Armenian Christian family and is not, as the article alleges “an unassimilated Muslim.”  The article starts with an unflattering description of George Soros and then asserts an association between Soros and Gregorian.  Unfortunately there is no evidence, in the real world, much less in the article, that the two men even have met each other, much less have some kind of evil relationship.  Soros is trotted out simply because he is a known “bad guy” so guilt by association helps paint Gregorian as a threat.

4) Any story pushing an affiliation not directly relevant to the story is likely #FakeNews.

Speaking of guilt by association, use of the term “affiliate” is always suspicious.  Anyone active in public life who belongs to organizations and/or donates to them could be said to be “affiliated” with anyone else belonging to or donating to the same organization.  It is meaningless in judging a person's intent or character to assert an association, especially with a known bad guy.
An especially egregious example again comes from the Tennessee Star: La Raza Affiliate That Randy Boyd Gave $250,000 Is Holding Another Anti-Trump Event in Nashville.

You'd be hard pressed to recognize from this headline the article is about an upcoming “Biscuits and Tacos” event put on for Independence Day by Conexion Americas, an organization that helps and advocates for Hispanics in Nashville.  But that is the topic. Sort of.  Note the dog whistles here: La Raza (a national organization often tied to Hispanic nationalism), Randy Boyd (a bad guy in the Tennessee Star's world), and “anti Trump” which connotes disloyalty or being on the wrong side of issues. The article of course has nothing to do with Boyd, La Raza or even “anti Trump”.  Their presence is simply meant to create an association among them that amounts to a smear.

5) Any story relying on anonymous sources is likely #FakeNews.

While “Deep Throat” helped break open the Watergate scandal and anonymous sources do often break stories, more often they are cover for fake news.  An especially amusing example is the continuing story that Reince Preibus, the White House Chief of Staff, is getting fired.  That story was reported in the “Palmer Report” on March 30 2017, citing an unlinked Politico story.  CNBC on April 7th relied on a story on Axios, citing “a top aide” to Trump to state Preibus would be fired shortly. On May 27th the Washington Post, relying on “some Trump associates”, reported Priebus would be named ambassador to Greece to remove him from Chief of Staff.  The Post's story concerned an upcoming shake up in the administration and establishing a “war room” to deal with the Russia crisis.  Of course no such thing happened. On May 31st NBC news, citing “multiple sources close to the administration” reported Priebus would be fired and likely replaced with Gary Cohn. And on June 11th Politico, relying on “two administration officials and three outside advisors familiar with the matter,” reported Trump had given Priebus until July 4th to “clean up the White House”.  Of course Priebus is still there.  I should note that all of these stories contain flat denials by the White House itself that there was any truth to them.  People should remember that not every staffer is loyal to his immediate or ultimate boss and many have their own agendas to push.  They do so by providing anonymous “tips” to further one narrative or another.  When these tips confirm a narrative the particular news organization wants to believe, like the Trump White House is chaotic and disorganized, then they are likely to be aired as news.

In all fake news is so not because the facts reported are incorrect.  In almost every case what is reported is “true”.  They are fake because the writers and editors stack fact and opinion, editing to create a false impression by leaving out key pieces of information, or substituting opinion for fact.  To recognize fake news requires asking questions, whether the facts given are relevant, whether there are key pieces of information not being reported, whether the source of the information is reliable or not, and whether the story is really a disguised attempt to push an opinion rather than report news.

Bill Bernstein first came to Nashville in 1980 as a freshman at Vanderbilt. After finishing he spent time in graduate schools in Classics. He returned to Nashville in 1992 and has been a firearms dealer and Second Amendment advocate for over a decade.

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  1. "Bill Bernstein first came to Nashville in 1980 as a freshman at Vanderbilt. After finishing he spent time in graduate schools in Classics. He returned to Nashville in 1992 and has been a firearms dealer and Second Amendment advocate for over a decade."

    Bill, you proved your "modesty" creds by not boasting about attending a very famous college in a very famous university north of London.

    Jim Southerland under my Google nom d'plume

  2. Fair and balanced - not to mention insightful and instructive.