The post-election examination of the state of society in the United States is going strong a month after the election itself. The role of the national media, established press outlets, and new media continues to get a lot of attention, especially in the context of claims about the rise of “fake news” and its affects on the decisions of voters.
The claims about “fake news” center on engagement with articles and websites, often through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The most serious charge is that the Russian government initiated a concerted effort to spread misleading information in order to 1) sway the election to Donald Trump, 2) undermine American confidence in its political processes and institutions, or 3) both.
The Washington Post made a substantial contribution to the claim in an article by Craig Timberg. Ironically enough, the Post article itself was quickly criticized for demonstrating the very characteristics of the sort of “fake news” that it was supposedly intended to expose. The situation added to a wider concern about the reputation of the media.
It was widely perceived during the campaign that the established press organizations had abandoned their perceived role as neutral providers of news in favor of promoting Hillary Clinton, or at least defeating Donald Trump. Much campaign coverage had begun to be transparently designed to avoid hurting Clinton’s campaign and to maximize damage to Trump’s. For a substantial portion of the population, this only served to undermine confidence in the truth of reporting. In other words, the reduction in credibility led to many people wondering if the reporting of the established media outlets was to that extent “fake news.”
With that perception of the media in place, it’s difficult to condemn other for the practice of purveying fake news. It will be interesting to see over the next several months whether an effort to reestablish a perception of credibility and fairness will be on the agenda for the national media.
Every one of the three major candidates in this election (Trump, Clinton, and Sanders) was hounded by fake or exaggerated news stories. Trump was accused of being a secret Russian agent. Clinton’s email scandal was blown out of all reasonable proportion. And Bernie Sanders was hounded by malicious and unrepresentative stereotypes about “BernieBros.” Yet none of these stories were from fringe blogs and conspiracy sites. They were all produced by the mainstream press, which gave this nonsense primacy over stories about climate change, nuclear proliferation, Syria, health care, poverty, and every other conceivable issue of consequence.
Concerns about fake news are justified. But instead of begging our Silicon Valley overlords to crack down on the free sharing of information, we might start by building a mainstream press that has credibility of its own.