Real news, in my opinion

Fake news was real.

Me and Mike

Mike and me, outgoing and incoming heads of History Division, AEJMC

There really were a bunch of teenagers in a former Communist city in the former Yugoslavia cranking out confections with tabloid-headlines quoting fake FBI sources saying Hillary Clinton was about to be indicted, or whatever.

Kids will be kids, and on social media, they learn fast. These kids learned that the American click-bait market paid better than the Eurozone, and that politics worked better than listicals, and that pro-Trump scams were easier to manufacture than cat videos.

So they flourished for a while during the 2016 presidential campaigns, fooling Trump fans with more than 100 websites that sounded like red-blooded right-wing American political sites. But the system is self-correcting. Sort of. BuzzFeed and The Guardian exposed the fraud. Google and Facebook said they would shut down fake news sites. Not much damage was done. Oh yeah, except Donald Trump was elected president.

Trump is amazing. You have to admit it. A shameless swindler on a scale that makes the Music Man and Wizard of Oz seem puritanical. To say he “lies” misses the point. Poets lie in one way. Swindlers lie in another. But it’s not really lying. It goes with the vocation.

If his dominance were just reality TV, pro wrestling or tabloid news, we could be entertained or put off, as New Yorkers and cheated contractors and golf partners have been for decades.

But we’re media historians and communication professors, not quite his “enemy of the American people,” but fellow travelers. To add another swirl to his libido for confusion, he misappropriates the term “fake news” by applying it to the New York Times and CNN.

The “failing” New York Times (with stock rising from $13 to $18 a share in the past year) does indeed commit factual errors every day. That’s journalism. Trump applies the term fake news to real journalism in two ways. One is for news he doesn’t like. The other is for when there’s an error in a news story he doesn’t like.

How do you teach this stuff these days? How do you study it?

Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed who exposed the fake-news prodigies of Macedonia, is a leading expert on fake news and on the related problem of online verification of rumors (about which he produced a good study in 2015 for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism). I enjoyed his keynote address at AEJMC in Chicago, although his narrow definition of fake news came in for debate at a later conference session.

Silverman defined fake news as made-up online material designed only to make money, not to advance an agenda. When it is to advance an agenda, he said, it’s propaganda.

Either way, I was inspired after that session to post on my Facebook page the following resolution: “I will not open any more shared sites unless I recognize the source. I don’t mean the person sharing. I mean the link. I recommend this practice to all. You can ask the person sharing to please describe why they trust some fresh source you’ve never heard of. We can solve this problem.” I would include my nephew’s amateur video that has gotten more than five million hits.

In the History Division’s final research session on Saturday, Julien Gorbach of the University of Hawaii presented a paper proposing a more elaborate taxonomy of made-up news, “Not Your Grandpa’s Hoax: A Comparative History of Fake News.” Gorbach goes back to Defoe, The New York Sun and Poe to categorize types of hoaxes that have always played out in the history of journalism. But in the age of social media, the “fun” of yesteryear’s hoaxes has been replaced by real danger, from hijacked elections to nuclear war. Like journalist Richard Hornik at Syracuse, Gorbach argues for more news literacy.

This was also the main point of a resolution from AEJMC’s RF&R standing committee that the conference approved. It addressed “threats to the First Amendment” and reaffirmed the association’s commitment “to journalism and its role and function in a free and democratic society.”

I was surprised that the resolution, with its windup of eight Whereas sentences, failed to mention Donald Trump, though his shadow fell over most of the document. The sentence on fake news was especially gossamer. “Whereas repeated allegations of ‘fake news’ underscores a pressing need for a more media-literate electorate” . . . huh? The sentence did get its verb-number corrected to “underscore.” But I had to speak up to agree with the woman who complained about the weakness of this wording. First of all, it’s the actual viral-going existence, not allegations, of fake news that underscores the need for media literacy. And then it’s Trump’s twisted name-calling – hardly deserving of the term allegations – that misapplies the term fake news as his way of dodging and changing the subject.

The high point of the conference for me was getting a bear hug from Mike Sweeney as about 50 members of our division stood in prolonged applause for Mike. He has been matter-of-fact about his cancer, and the daily rest he needed even at the convention, because of treatment. Through all this, he continued working at Ohio University, chaired the division, edited Journalism History, and supervised the ad hoc committee that Frank Fee chaired to map out how our division can take on this publication.

I didn’t have anything like a proper gift for Mike, but I happened to have a historic button that meant a lot to me. So I gave it to Mike. It was a large black button that announced James Meredith’s March Against Fear, Mississippi, 1966. As I said then, Mike is one of the two living heroes I look up to. (The other is our daughter Sarah, 26, whose brain surgery in New York three days later successfully remove half her slow-growing tumor, and didn’t damage the insular cortex she dearly needed to protect to do medical journalism well.)

Our job is to not be afraid, looking to James Meredith and Mike Sweeney for examples.

Now I have a new button that I got in New York, from a friend at the Times. It’s a small white button that says “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.”

Note: This was my initial column as AEJMC History Division head, in the fall issue of Clio Among the Media, the division’s quarterly newsletter.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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