December 5, 2016

Fake news, false equivalency, and “facts”


Alisyn Camerota is all of us.

Alisyn Camerota is all of us.

The news is coming ridiculously fast these days; Twitter is where you go to be buried in an avalanche of WTF until you collapse in a heap of exhaustion. In the space of twenty-four hours, you can learn that PEOTUS (this is a thing?) made a deal with Carrier, wonder if he really did such a good thing, learn that it’s a bad thing, despair for the workers of America, and then find out, inevitably, that Trump made a profit on the deal. Whew.

So, once again, a few of the many pieces in the crowd I found worth sharing.

In a distressing sign of the times, the New York Times has started a new column, “This Week in Hate.”

This Week in Hate tracks hate crimes and harassment around the country since the election of Donald Trump. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups are keeping detailed counts of harassment and abuse. We will regularly present a selection of incidents to show the scope of the problem. This article, the first in the series, includes incidents reported in the last two weeks.

Also in the New York Times, “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study”:

“I did think in the back of my mind there could be other explanations, but it just didn’t seem plausible,” he said in an interview, noting that he had posted as a “private citizen who had a tiny Twitter following.”

He added, “I’m also a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there, especially when I don’t think it’s going out there for wide consumption.”

Let’s just tuck that away for future reference… very busy businessmen don’t have time for fact-checking, especially when it’s just a conspiracy theory going out to their Twitter followers. Sounds familiar.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in The New Yorker that “Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About”:

Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about. “Climate contrarian” obfuscates. “Climate-change denier” does not. And because climate change is scientific fact, not opinion, this matters.

Now is the time to discard that carefulness that too closely resembles a lack of conviction. The election is not a “simple racism story,” because no racism story is ever a “simple” racism story, in which grinning evil people wearing white burn crosses in yards. A racism story is complicated, but it is still a racism story, and it is worth parsing. Now is not the time to tiptoe around historical references. Recalling Nazism is not extreme; it is the astute response of those who know that history gives both context and warning.

And is Obama going into… digital media?

Obama considers media to be a central focus of his next chapter, these sources say, though exactly what form that will take—a show streaming on Netflix, a web series on a comedy site or something else—remains unclear. Obama has gone so far as to discuss launching his own media company, according to one source with knowledge of the matter, although he has reportedly cooled on the idea of late.

I would watch that web series!

Facts are, like, so 2015. According to Scottie Nell Hughes (speaking on Fox News, naturally), “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

“And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

There’s been a lot of discussion about misleadingly banal headlines since the election. David Cay Johnston isn’t having any of that. His latest column is titled “Trump Feeds Your Kids to DC Swamp.”

Drain the swamp was a con, and Trump, the greatest con artist of all time, fooled just enough voters in manufacturing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to gain entry to the White House via the Electoral College. Instead of delivering on his promises to those workers what we can see in Trump’s appointments is his embrace of the super-rich he told us rigged the system. Turns out they did.

And on a more encouraging note, Washington Post editor Marty Baron, who has overseen some truly wonderful journalism in the last year, won the Hitchens Prize and had some words for his fellow reporters, saying, “The ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work.”

If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly—because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions—the public will not forgive us.

Nor, in my view, should they.

After the release of the movie Spotlight, I was often asked how we at The Boston Globe were willing to take on the most powerful institution in New England and among the most powerful in the world, the Catholic Church.

The question really mystifies me—especially when it comes from journalists or those who hope to enter the profession. Because holding the most powerful to account is what we are supposed to do.

If we do not do that, then what exactly is the purpose of journalism?


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.