Fake news. Alternative facts. My truth. Your truth. The truth. We are awash in charges and counter-charges about who says what, how what is said, and what the what is.
During the 2016 Presidential campaign through transition and into the beginning of the Trump administration, the term fake news has morphed from the label applied to hoaxes, satire, and polemics dressed up as reporting to anything contrary to the opinion of the holder. The result is charge and countercharge across all subjects as if we have become one giant ongoing episode of CNN’s classic right vs. left Crossfire show.
The blame for this mess falls squarely on the media, specifically the mainstream media made up of the television and radio news networks of ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN, the major newspapers of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, the news organizations of the Associated Press and Reuters, and associated websites such as Politico and The Hill. The reason the blame falls squarely on the mainstream media is that they consistently maintain to this very moment that they are objective providers of information because, drumroll please, they are journalists. They have solemnly told us how the designation of journalist is sufficient for us to take them at their word despite any evidence to the contrary.
It is not the case that we, the consumers of news, are exacting taskmasters demanding pure and impartial news. In fact, many times over the years we have said to various members of the media that surely some personal bias or opinion creeps into the equation because they are human, but not only has that been denied, it has been hotly denied. The usual reaction borders almost on the hysterical as the journalist in question huffs and puffs about impugning journalistic integrity at the mere thought of being asked such questions.
Of course, they are human, they have personal biases and opinions, and rather than creeping into their work, they infuse their work with them. That is the major takeaway of the fake news controversy from the campaign. The final veneer of impartiality being completely stripped away from the media on Election Night 2016 and never to hold again no matter how much super glue they use. The dour looks, pouting, and outright tears on display from all corners of the mainstream media as Donald Trump won a smashing victory rolling through the Democrat strongholds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin told us all we needed.
The impartiality veneer was fading fast even before Election Night as they could not help themselves in working tirelessly for Hillary Clinton and so they began striking back at their tormentors, as they saw them, on the right by labeling contrary news stories as fake news. The careful observer of matters may rightfully object to the notion that it was only during this past election that the impartiality veneer of the mainstream media was imperiled given the nine year (campaign plus two terms) adulation they bestowed on Barack Obama. It is a fair and accurate objection, but yet the veneer remained to the less than careful observer. The question is, then, why was the campaign of 2016 different? Two words, of course: Donald Trump.
It was candidate Donald Trump who took on the mainstream media virtually from the start of his campaign even though he received coverage the other Republican candidates could only dream of. Now, for sure, Trump and his advisors knew that it was a favorite game of the media to favor particular Republican candidates during the nominating process only to tear them down during the general election. This has been known to previous candidates as well, but where they backed off even in the face of that knowledge when the media heat increased, Trump increased his heat in return. He took the fight to the media and astoundingly, in many ways, they kept fighting with him which proved his point that they were terribly biased in favor his opponent. When the emails came to light from Wikileaks that there was coordination between the media and the Clinton campaign, the game was up.
Seeming to acknowledge this, they trotted out the fake news howitzer and began firing at anything which differed from them. Predictably, the fake news howitzer on the other side fired back and here we are today with everyone calling everything they disagree with fake news. There seems to be no end in sight, either.
So what do we do as consumers of news? The typical and understandable response is to rely on the news sources that we agree with. After all, conservatives are not tuning into CNN any more than liberals are tuning into Fox News. But is there must be something else that we can do. The answer is yes, but it requires a little bit of work. Good work, but work nonetheless.
The work is to go to the primary source of a news event such as a speech or a press release rather than the secondary source of someone’s account or analysis, or the tertiary source of someone’s opinion or reporting of someone’s account. The news reporting we are all familiar with is mostly secondary source because there are reporters and anchors summarizing an event for presentation and using primary source material in various amounts from quotes and short video or audio clips to entire transcripts of speeches or press conferences. The advantage of secondary sources is that someone has already done the work for us of going to the primary source; the disadvantage is that we are seeing or hearing what the secondary source believes is important and, in many cases, having the news event interpreted and framed in a particular manner by what the secondary source believes.
When we go to the primary source, it is our interpretation that informs us. Essentially, we are following up on questions like, “What really happened?” and “What was really said?” Now, we may lack the background to fully understand everything or know the full context and this is where also utilizing secondary sources can be really helpful. The current imbroglio concerning the President’s order on border security and immigration is one where reading the executive order also requires reading interpretations to get the full picture.
For most things, however, going to the primary source is really enough. For example, examining how the inaugural speeches of Donald Trump and Barack Obama compare. Again, it is a lot more work going to the primary source which in this case is reading or watching the speeches, but it is rewarding and illuminating to see things for yourself. More illumination and less fake news? That is a winning combination.