There’s nothing new about ‘fake’ news

During the interview for my first full-time newspaper reporting job, years before anyone had heard of – or even conceived of – the World Wide Web, I remember the managing editor of the small suburban weekly asking something to the effect of why he should hire me, a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in geology, to work as a journalist.

It was a fair question. And my answer, while it might sound facile to someone hearing it for the first time, was one I actually kind of surprised myself with… but realized as soon as I said it that I believed fully (and still do today).

“Science is the search for truth,” I said (or at least suggested in a similar mix of words – it was, after all, a long time ago), “and so is journalism. Both are looking for real answers.”

All these years later, I now find myself pained at seeing how much journalism – now both online and off – is not looking for real answers. I’m pained at how much is “fake news.” Or lazy “he said she said” reporting. Or news tainted by false equivalencies and both-siderism. Or just plain propaganda.

Still, if I’m honest, “fake news” has existed in many varieties for a very long time. Readers just didn’t tend to see it if the fake part clearly didn’t conflict with their own personal realities.

For instance, people of color have long understood that many things they heard and read in the news really weren’t true… stories about how things like “separate but equal,” red-lining, voter disenfranchisement and vast inequalities in policing and courtroom outcomes weren’t really a problem. (Look no further than the recent news about Canada putting Viola Davis on the $10 note, 70 years after she was convicted on tax charges… because she refused to comply with whites-only seating in a theater. She was only pardoned on those charges, by the way, in 2010, 45 years after her death.)

Women, too, have long known to read between the lines in media reports that often haven’t acknowledged their full experiences with things like sexual assault, domestic violence or workplace discrimination.

As for people who didn’t fit in with the norms of mainstream heterosexual society? Well, for many years, they might as well have not existed at all, for all the times their issues and concerns were presented objectively in the mainstream press.

As Elon University communication professor Jonathan Albright wrote recently in The Guardian, “It’s an unfortunate reality that news reporting is often at odds with the interest trifecta of politics, profits, and public opinion.” That’s why, even in this day and age, news that families have been charged up to $16 a minute to talk on the phone with relatives in prison – reaping a hefty profit for phone and prison companies alike – or that women who have miscarriages can be sentenced to prison depending on the state they live in don’t generate far more national headlines and outrage: the “wrong” people are wronged in these and other examples of injustice, and the powers-that-be don’t care enough on a first-tier level.

Which brings us to now, when the rise of Trump has suddenly forced new media navel-gazing about how they failed to recognize the concerns of the “white working class” and the white – as PEOTUS puts it – “poorly educated.” (Notice too that all the media’s sudden scrutiny has settled on the “narrative” of that population – the white working class – and that alone as being the population that they’ve failed to acknowledge.)

Well, duh. It’s only now that a critical mass of non-POC, non-LGBTQ and non-college-educated voters have discovered what these other groups have long known: most “mainstream” news coverage has long focused on only the interests of a chosen few. For far too long, too many of those free-trade deals, regulation-streamlining bills, education “choice and “reform” measures, tax “reforms” and more weren’t for most of those voters outside the chosen few, and they’ve long known it.

And you know what? The outcome of this last election isn’t likely to change that.


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