In line with venerable liberal tradition, the disaster known as Election ’16 has bred a slew of culprits behind the surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton, all reassuringly distant from the leadership sanctums of the national Democratic Party: James Comey, WikiLeaks, Vladimir Putin, Bernie Sanders and his cast of bros, etc. But of all the creaky entries in this still-expanding litany of blame, the alleged plague of “fake news” web sites is perhaps the creakiest.
It’s true that, for diehard Clinton triumphalists, some of the sites racking up big social-media followings bear a Russian provenance, making for an irresistibly efficient exercise in scapegoating. But unfortunately for Democratic apologists, there’s considerably less to this particular media panic than meets the eye—and not only because the storyline of Russian orchestration appears to be a species of fake news in its own right. The online mediasphere has been cluttered with click-friendly garbage almost from the dawn of the Internet Age. There’s a reason, after all, that the steady blizzard of online scams, fabrications, and come-ons has birthed a host of Internet memes about the internet’s own utter lack of info-credibility.
What’s more, the notion that the Hillary-baiting brand of fake online news—while truly virulent and ugly—somehow had hornswaggled millions of otherwise well-intentioned voters to pull the lever for Donald Trump misreads the market for such sites in stupefying fashion. Yes, the fake-news content farms lean decisively right—but as Baffler contributing editor Rick Perlstein has demonstrated, that’s largely because right-wing news consumers are much more apt to respond to the panicked advertising come-ons that generate profits for purveyors of ideological sleaze.
And it simply stretches credulity to picture the model independent voter coming upon, say, reports of a Michael Moore-organized coup or any among the countless reports of the possessed, zombified, or dying Hillary Clinton, and thinking to herself, “I’m no longer on the fence! It is my clear civic duty to purge our embattled republic of demonic liberal spirits!” No, the torrent of such reports is typically unleashed on a Facebook page once a user has declared a pre-existing anti-Democratic political affinity. While the content of fake political news is undeniably squalid, the readership for it is largely self-selected. To prevent readers from falling prey to it, you first need to dissuade them from aligning with Trumpism or Republicanism—and for the righteous Democratic denouncers of the fake-news trend, that uncomfortable truth lands them right back where they don’t want to be: owning the consequences for their own massive failure to mount a persuasive mass appeal to liberal principle.
None of this, by the way, is to furnish any sort of alibi for the venal and morally bankrupt Facebook business model, which works mainly to drive all public discourse deeper into the mindset of the nursery. But just as the best solution to objectionable speech—pace President-elect Trump—is more speech, the only effective remedy for the fake news plague-let is media literacy and readerly skepticism.
It’s easier to wail about fake news than let the ramifications of the liberal media’s massive institutional failure sink in.
For that skepticism to be anything more than an ideological cudgel of first resort, it has to be applied consistently—and urgently, when it comes to restoring some semblance of coherence in the intellectual house of liberalism. What makes the whole fable of fake news sites somehow turning the election Trump’s way so debilitating for the left is that it works to reinforce all the lazy, self-regarding myths about meritocratic social prerogative that made the Clinton candidacy so unpalatable in the first place. The unwashed masses are huffing fake news like so much airplane glue, is the distilled essence of this particular inside-D.C. distress signal; we need to be the ones to instruct them in constructing a proper, nutritionally sound news diet. This patrician outlook also allows liberals to overlook the more consequential media story of this election: By any reasonable measure, mainstream media outlets were siding with the Clinton candidacy to an overwhelming degree, and their efforts met with public repudiation. It’s easier to wail about the menace of fake news than to let the ramifications of that massive institutional failure sink in.
Politics is not instruction, nor is news reporting an exercise in socio-moral uplift. News should scramble one’s inherited predilections, broaden the mindscape, and otherwise refrain from flattering the sensibilities of the press’s audience—or its subjects. From this vantage, the scandal of the fake news industry isn’t so much that it traffics in made-up storylines, fantastical tabloid melodramas, and clickbait of all description. Rather, it’s that the respectable remainder of the news business has been gleefully doing many of the same things. To be sure, it’s not the case that mainstream news organizations are fabricating stories out of whole cloth (at least not most of the time, anyway). But they are breathlessly uncritical transmitters of lie upon lie, particularly when the lie in question issues from the president-elect’s ovoid mouth or frenetic, offense-taking Twitter stream. When Trump falsely claimed that millions of people voted illegally, most news outlets treated the lie as—yes—an outlandish utterance, but one that, like so many prior Trump falsehoods, had to bandied around freely on pundit panels, subjected to pointless reportorial scrutiny, and generally handled with a certain professional deference. It was an altogether fitting meta-commentary on that particular dismal turn of the news cycle that the most valuable and responsible handling of Trump’s mendacity was to be found in the virtual pages of Teen Vogue.
For the mainstream press and the Democratic establishment, the most pressing threat is always somewhere off-set, or lurking in algorithms of social media.
I recently endured the thankless task of reading and reviewing CNN’s coffee-table digest of the network’s reliably awful Campaign ’16 political reporting—a book that bears the suitably vacuous title Unprecedented. In it, Jeffrey Lord, one of the network’s hired quartet of hack Trump apologists, regales the reader with what he takes to be a bona fide moment of television history. During the GOP convention in Cleveland, Lord was bloviating about the amazing political theater of the moment, when his cell phone alerted him to a message from Trump’s press secretary Hope Hicks; the candidate himself wanted to talk to Lord. Moments later the self-enamored bigot was on the line. Trump was calling, of course, to berate CNN panelists for not being sufficiently awe-inspired in their discussion of the convention’s relative success. Barely able to contain his own excitement, Lord broke into the panel discussion to announce to host Anderson Cooper that Trump has pronounced the proceedings in Cleveland a “tremendous convention” and “a stupendous success. . . . These people are totally in support of him.” Later, Lord heads out to the convention floor—no doubt to sample all the stupendiosity first hand, like any responsible reporter—and runs into network president Jeffrey Zucker. Lord duly regales the oafish CEO with the verite saga of the on-air Trump call. Zucker “grins,” Lord recalls, and announces “That is great television.”
Perhaps, but it’s nothing resembling journalism. It’s a quisling reciter of campaign-approved talking points parroting editorial instructions from his candidate-retainer (who, yes, had nothing better to do on the eve of his major-party presidential nomination than to monitor his coverage on an inane cable pundit panel). It’s his cheerfully clueless boss reveling in the pseudo-event of a hectoring phone call. It is, not to put too fine a point on things, unalloyed propaganda, which a witless, standards-free media ecosystem mistakes for news only because it involves real-time contact with a bona-fide authoritarian political brand. It’s something far worse than fake news cooked up for the fleeting, insular high of a Facebook share, but somehow we are never able to recognize the abject surrender of genuine news values in the face of plutocratic privilege as the dire public crisis that it plainly is. No, for the mainstream press, as for the Democratic establishment, the most pressing threat is always somewhere off-set, or overseas, or lurking in the algorithms of social media. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lord’s fanboy anecdote and many other beguiling pundit reminiscences of glancing contact with our super-famous president-in-waiting retails for a scant $40, and just in time for Christmas.