It’s Debatable: How real (a problem) is Fake News?

This week, Arnold Loewy and Charles Moster once again debate the issue of “Fake News.” Moster is a former litigation attorney in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidential administrations who has offices in Lubbock, Amarillo and Midland, and Loewy is the George Killiam Professor of Law at Texas Tech School of Law.

 

Charles: ‘Fake News’ is real, and it erodes credibility

Our topic today is whether so-called “Fake News” is a real phenomenon in the traditional news media or simply a fabrication by the Trump Administration intended to mislead the American people. I take the position that Fake News is not fake.

It would help if we could agree on a common definition. “Fake News” is a “type of hoax or a deliberate spread of misinformation, be it via the traditional news media or via social media, with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically.” In my view, the liberal media has pursued a partisan agenda to discredit President Trump by deliberately spreading misinformation and patently violating the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

Fake News presents itself both overtly and in subtle and dangerous forms more difficult to detect. News organizations such as CNN, the New York Times and others have deliberately engaged in a campaign of misinformation disguised as journalism to champion an anti-Trump agenda. The coverage of the President’s first executive order on immigration is a classic example as the press falsely stated that it was a religious ban. Reference to the text of the executive order, however, made clear that religions were not targeted, only specific countries. Although critics of the President could argue that no basis existed for restricting immigration by nationality, any assertion that the executive order was intended to ban specific religions was simply false. Similarly, the media reports that Trump was not targeting terror-sponsoring nations where he had business interests was a total fabrication as the Obama Administration originally came up with the list. Other instances may appear less significant but have the same toxic effect. For example, it was widely reported that Trump removed the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. This was immediately discredited, although the offending news services failed to issue a correction.

The media also lashed out at proposed Treasury Secretary Mnuchin stating his company foreclosed on a 90-year old woman due to a 27-cent payment error which was absolutely false and fake. Particularly egregious was the reporting that President Trump had purged numerous personnel at the top ranks of the Department of State. The media reported there was a “bloodbath at the Department of State.” Fake News yet again. Anyone who has ever served in the federal government is aware that political appointees at all levels of the government are fired when a new administration takes over. I guess the use of the phrase “bloodbath” had a more dramatic appeal than the recycling of administrative staff.

With respect to a less obvious variant of “Fake News”, the major networks including CNN routinely present commentary as serious news. The public cannot tell the difference. Those of us old enough to remember Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Eric Sevareid will recall there was always a clear demarcation between the presentation of news and commentary or opinion. All you had to do was look at the banner at the bottom of the screen. The SPJ Code of Ethics requires that news reporters “label advocacy and commentary”. Watch any broadcast starting this evening and the violations will be obvious. To prove my point, I compiled a running list starting the evening of March 6 and will report in the second round of my argument. Interestingly, our local Lubbock news stations rigorously abide by this requirement when commentary is provided by the station manager or media outlet.

Finally, Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer have made clear that it is irresponsible for reporters to base their stories on anonymous sources. This, of course, is the staple of the evening news content — and this will be part of my list. There is nothing outlandish about this request, as it is clearly set forth in the Code of Ethics: “Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

There is nothing fake about Fake News. It is a very real and destructive phenomenon that is destroying the legitimacy of the press.

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Arnold: Trump is purveyor, rather than victim, of ‘Fake’

I accept Mr. Moster’s definition of Fake News. With one exception, I have seen no evidence of it since the current president assumed office. The one exception is Mr. Trump’s outrageous assertion that former President Obama wiretapped his phones. This has been thoroughly debunked by none other than FBI director Jim Comey, hardly a staunch ally of democrats. But that didn’t keep the current President from disseminating such Fake News.

Mr. Moster (like Donald Trump) is not, of course, claiming Trump disseminated Fake News, which he almost certainly did, but he is the victim of Fake News. It is quite true that Trump did not ban all Muslims. It is equally true that his original ban on seven countries were all predominantly populated by Muslims. I have yet to find a Muslim living in the United States who did not think the ban was at least in part religiously motivated.

The truth is Trump seems to have had difficulty determining which Muslim countries to target. I am reminded of the song by Alan Jackson commemorating the 9/11 tragedy: “I’m just a singer of simple songs/I’m not a real political man/I watch CNN, but I don’t think I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran.” Of course that’s fine for Alan Jackson, but it’s not fine for the President of the United States. Happily the news media let him know he was painting with too broad of a brush and his advisors evidently explained the difference to him between democratic Iraq and theocratic Iran.

I am quite sure that now as well as in what Mr. Moster thinks of as the good old days, stories believed to be true but that turned out to be false were reported on the news. Frankly I had not heard some of the news stories that Mr. Moster laments, for instance President Trump’s alleged removal of the Martin Luther King bust from the Oval Office. But if true that was indeed unfortunate, and I’m sure that the offending news services have egg on their faces as a result. But an occasional mistake does not “a partisan agenda to discredit President Trump” make. Indeed, it wouldn’t shock me to learn that even Fox news, the darling of conservatives, may have made a reporting error or two — not an accusation, just a possible observation.

As to failure to distinguish commentary from news, I believe that is a figment of Mr. Moster’s imagination. Most CNN shows — despite the fact it calls itself Cable News Network — do not purport to be news. Rather, shows hosted by Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper are much more like “60 Minutes” or Barbara Walters interviews. That is, they are commentary.

Of course, there is no excuse for intentionally using false facts in commentary. Certainly Mr. Moster and I never intentionally use false facts in our commentary though I fear it is always possible a false statement might have gotten through from time to time. At least I hope not from me, although accidents do happen.

Finally as to identifying sources. I certainly agree that all other things being equal it would be good if the source of a story were divulged. But we all know that sometimes sources demand confidentiality and if it is not guaranteed they will not provide the information. And, of course, Donald Trump with the bully pulpit of the presidency certainly has the ability to discredit a falsehood in a way that few of us ordinary folks can match.

^

Charles: Commentary, unnamed sources blur news

Professor Loewy directs his salvos at President Trump and yours truly, but he misses the point. Let’s start with his rejoinder to my argument that the press violates its own code of ethics by failing to distinguish commentary from news. The Professor states, “I believe that is a figment of Mr. Moster’s imagination.” I don’t think so and would look no further than one of Lubbock’s own media greats, Scott Pelley, to prove the point.

Although I have great respect for Mr. Pelley and proud that he hails from Texas Tech, his coverage of the President defies journalistic objectiveness and goes for the jugular almost every evening commencing at 5:30 p.m. For example, on the Feb. 7 broadcast of the “CBS Evening News,” Pelley announced the lead story as follows: “President Trump told a U.S. military audience that there have been terrorist attacks that no one knows about because the media chooses not to report them. It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality.”

That statement is inherently biased and obviously constitutes Pelley’s opinion, however, it is not news. We get it that Pelley is not a fan of President Trump and he is 100 percent entitled to have his own opinion. That said, opinion and commentary cannot be dispensed as objective news and should be designated as such in accordance with the code of ethics. Seems to me that the confrontational and ratings-generating style of “60 Minutes” is improperly crossing over to CBS’s mainline news broadcasts. Opinion presented as objective fact is a classic example of “Fake News”.

In the interest of fairness and not just picking on Pelley, there is plenty of Fake News to go around. The lead story presented by NBC News anchor Lester Holt on the March 6 broadcast committed the same offense as its competitor. Lester characterized the lead story in this way: “The echoes of President Trump’s explosive and inexplicable Twitter accusations against former President Obama over the weekend threaten to drown out today’s other news.”

This expertly delivered salvo makes a great sound bite but news it is not. A media executive adult needs to exclaim, “Time out, you two!”

I would wager that every major story dispensed by the major networks is based on an anonymous source that flies in the face of the code of ethics, which mandates that reporters identify sources clearly.” Once again on Holt’s March 6 program, a reporter lambasted President Trump’s claim of wiretapping by Obama as follows: “The press secretary is calling for a Congressional investigation even though the FBI, which the President oversees, is asking the Justice Department to push back against the President’s claim, according to a senior U.S. official.”

The above statement owes its alleged truthfulness to an anonymous source. For all we know, the source could have been overheard in a Congressional washroom or, I dare say, fabricated. How would the public ever know the difference? That is why reporters are charged with disclosing their sources.

Of course, I understand that in some instances sources seek cover to guard against retaliation. However, that is not a blanket excuse for predicating almost every major story on an invisible and unverifiable source. That is not responsible journalism in my book and masquerades as legitimate news.

Professor Loewy states “an occasional mistake does not ‘a partisan agenda to discredit President Trump make.” The examples cited above are not occasional but constitute a concerted attempt by the liberal news media to distort the facts and champion a partisan agenda. This deliberate spread of misinformation fits the definition of “Fake News.”

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Arnold: A little editorializing now and then can’t hurt

Of course, the “deliberate spread of misinformation fits the definition of ‘Fake News.’” And, if Mr. Moster had established that the news media had done that, I would have to concede this debate to him. But he hasn’t. At most he has come up with a couple of isolated examples which, if accurately described, would not prove his point. Indeed, if there were an easy way to total the stories based on anonymous sources vs. those not so based, I would happily accept his wager.

Indeed, he only cites one example, an NBC reporter’s reference to “a senior U.S. official.” While of course a reporter, or any Fox newscaster, could flat-out lie, Mr. Moster does not present the slightest evidence the reporter did not get his information from a senior U.S. official. Quite frankly, I never recall a time when news was not reported from anonymous sources — in the sense of undisclosed, not unknown to the reporter — even in the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite.

Mr. Moster’s biggest objection seems to be a news anchor’s modest and obvious commentary on the news. Perhaps he would prefer news anchors just read news from a teleprompter and carefully avoid injecting anything that sounds like an opinion. There never was such a time in newscasting and such a method of presenting news would be exceedingly boring and probably have close to a zero audience.

Let’s look at the statements that so badly bother Mr. Moster: “President Trump told a U.S. military audience that there have been terrorists attacks that no one knows about because the media chooses not to report them. It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality.” As for the primary statement, Pelley, as a CBS anchorman, would know whether there was any truth to the allegation of media failure. Thus his conclusion that the media did not deliberately fail to report such attacks was well within his factual ken. On the second part of the statement, it depends on what else the President said that day. If he made some other obviously false claims the statement would be appropriate. If he did not, it would have been a gratuitous insult and highly inappropriate.

Holt’s comment: “The echoes of President Trump’s inexplicable Twitter accusations against former President Obama over the weekend threaten to drown out other news.” I assume that Holt was referring to Trump’s ridiculous (at least according to FBI director Comey) accusation that President Obama had him wiretapped. Frankly, I think calling it “inexplicable” was mild. As to drowning out other news, Mr. Holt certainly knew how much time had to be devoted to this story and how little was left for other news.

Now that we see what is not editorializing and most assuredly not Fake News. Let’s look at what is. On the March 11 Commentary page page of this newspaper, the Avalanche Journal, Jim Hightower had a column headlined, “What should we do when Trump shows he’s obviously mentally ill?” Without question that is editorial comment and not news and would be totally out of place as news. But Scott Pelley and Lester Holt are not presenting such obvious opinions as news. What they are doing is presenting the news in a manner that will interest its viewers — as Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley did before them.

Whatever else might be said about such mild editorializing — if it must be called that — it certainly does not make the News Fake.

 

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