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Fake News and the True Role of the Media

April 12, AD2017

pope francis, pope, papacy, seat of peter,Now used by the right and the left, fake news is practically the catch phrase of the Trump presidency. It refers to media reports which are inaccurate, perhaps, not blatant lies, but biased enough to be untrue. Fake news has the intent to mislead the public through so-called misinformation. On February 17, 2017, in what the New York Times called a “striking escalation in his attacks,” President Trump tweeted “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

The media has responded to Trump’s accusations by ripping into inaccurate statements made by Trump and his administration such as those regarding terrorist attacks that never existed. Fake news is a symptom of a left-leaning media was quite comfortable in its reign of power until Trump took office. As Trump says, fake news is an enemy to the public; it attacks our basic right to freedom of expression and open discussion.

Hearing One Side of the Story

From Trump’s presidency to abortion issues, the mainstream media has persistently engaged in fake news by offering one side of a story or issue. Reports seeking to undercut Trump’s character, past, and decisions have dominated our news feed since before Trump took office. One of the most insightful explanations I have heard of the recent vendetta to destroy Trump’s presidency via the Russian investigation came from ultra-liberal, Trump-basher and writer in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen. On NPR’s Here and Now, Gessen criticized her fellow liberals for their over-eagerness in the Russian-investigation.

“The thing about this conspiracy theory about the Russian interference in the election is that the way we imagine it, it solves both the past, which is how we got Trump and the future, which is how we get rid of Trump.”

Gessen’s theory rings true that the anti-Trump world exists in a state of denial both about Trump’s win and the possibility of his success. Perhaps, this paranoia obligates the mainstream media to play stories painting conservatives in a war against our civil liberties.

Alienating the Opposition

Before the election, many people I knew were afraid to support Trump in public. In the days and weeks after Trump won the election, our social media feeds overflowed with vitriol from the media (often reposted by our friends and colleagues) lambasting Trump’s character and bemoaning his unexpected win. Now with the help of widely-watched comedy shows, Trump, his team, and his supporters have become the butt of jokes. In one Saturday Night Live skit, the actress, Scarlett Johansson, pretending to be Ivanka Trump, advertizes a brand of perfume called “complicit,” thus, insinuating Ivanka’s complicity in what the media sees as Trump’s attacks on women’s rights. In theory, the skit points an accusing finger at every woman who has the audacity to support Trump. In sum, the fake news mentality is not just about airing desirable news; it is also about silencing the other side.

As a result of such actions, the media alienates us from each other. In the words of the current pope on the 2015 World Communications Day,

“the media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that ‘silence is an integral element of communication.”

To the pope, the media should connect our world by “[enabling] people to share their stories” and by “[opening] the door to new encounters.” There is a certain thrill that comes from turning on the radio and listening to stories about the lives of people from distant corners of the world. A feeling of interconnectedness and togetherness can result from this “encounter.” Obviously, fake news stories at least as I have defined them are opposed to openness. They work furiously to tear down the opposition by bombarding the public with story after story painting the world in a certain light.

The Importance of Dialogue

In his words, the pope implies that the media has a role in promoting dialogue. In a recent address to a body of volunteers in Italy, the pope said “Through dialogue, we can learn to see the other not as a threat, but as a gift of God[.]” He went on to say that listening is one of the most important things we can give offer another person.

“Aptitude for listening, of which God is the model urges us to break down the walls of misunderstanding, [and] to create bridges of communication, overcoming isolation and closure in within one’s own little world.”

Importantly, listening does not imply agreement. Most basically, listening requires silence because if we are so concerned about hearing our own opinions expressed, we will simply be physically incapable of listening. It also requires some basic connection with the other even if that other is radically opposed to our own point of view.

Granted tolerance can be a thorny issue to Catholics because it often rings of defeatism, tolerance is a vital part of our response to the world. The Catholic Catechism writes that men and women with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (CCC 2358). By listening to others, we show the kind of compassion and respect that the Catechism endorses. The irony is that the mainstream media that so often portrays its opponents as bigoted, biased, and insensitive, often engages in the very behavior it self-righteously decries.

Addiction to the Media

Of course, both sides of the aisle are guilty of engaging in reporting that is aimed at instilling hate and resentment. Nor is the blame completely on the side of the media. The media can become a means of filling up a silence in our lives we would rather not hear. Like other escapes, following the news can become almost an addiction. The news can support a cynicism about the world and human nature that is not healthy. It can also dull our senses to human encounters. At its best, it can be informative, fair, and eye-opening.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Currently living in the Boston area, Paul recently completed his Masters in Teaching English as a Second language. Raised in Catholicism, he deepened his faith by completing his undergraduate degree at a Catholic liberal arts school. There he became familiar with inseparability of faith and reason even with a deeper realization of the ideological warfare faced by the faithful. A passionate educator and learner, Paul has taught in Mexico and Chile, as well as Boston. Faith and obedience to the teachings of the Catholic Church remain the core of Paul's life. Encouraging others in their walk with Christ, he hopes to share the joy and peace of the Gospel by following in the footsteps of Pope Francis who reaches out to sinners with humility and compassion.

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  • john

    The media doesn’t need to make up “fake news” to embarrass Donald Trump. He does that well enough on his own. Merely reprinting his words and broadcasting his own voice are just the cold facts. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • DLink

    I allot myself five minutes per day to watch MSNBC as a reminder of how bad fake news can really be. For those of us with even a minimal awareness of the world, this is a sardonically amusing experience. Unfortunately, there are those poor souls who actually believe these fairy tales.

  • captcrisis

    False equivalence.

    Trump calls it “fake news” when the media reports something that is obviously true and sometimes when it’s something Trump has admitted in the past. If there are “two sides” here they certainly are not equal.

    I’m glad you’re reading the New Yorker though. I don’t know why Gessen disputes the unanimous view in the intelligence community that Russia interfered with the election so that Trump would win, especially when it’s admitted by everyone that Hillary Clinton is despised by Putin and that Trump admires him. But contrary pieces like hers just don’t appear in the right-wing media.

    • Caine

      Captcrisis, you must be blind to the fact that the DNC and the Hillary campaign colluded with cbsabcnbccnnmsnbcwaponyt (among other liberal media groups) to try and get Hillary elected (WikiLeaks). You obviously can’t see bias and the slobbering love affair the media has for the left. Trump is correct in his assertion. Reporting, as a profession, died a couple of decades ago.

    • captcrisis

      You can’t cite any specific facts to support your argument.

    • Caine

      From WikiLeaks this past fall, John Podesta’s gmail account showed a conversation between the Clinton Campaign and Donna Brazile, who at the time worked for CNN. It showed that Brazile provided pre-debate questions only to Hillary, not to Trump, even offering responses she thought might be good. Brazile later resigned from CNN upon this revelation and said she regretted her actions. Debbie Wassermanshultz actively worked with Hillary Clinton’s campaign to ensure her winning the DNC primary over Bernie Sanders. Debbie later resigned from her post as the DNC chair upon this revelation. Also, included in Podesta’s emails it was revealed a dinner roster that had 65 prominent “news” anchors and company presidents from all the media outlets listed in my post above. Anderson Cooper did not attend. He stated on air that he did so to avoid the appearance of impropriety. There’s much more. This is the definition of collusion. If what WikiLeaks released was false or manufactured why would people resign or try to demonstrate innocence?

    • captcrisis

      All of this (which was trivial compared to things that Trump admitted to and actually bragged about doing) was extensively reported in the media. In fact the endless e-mail dumps about Hillary (remember, the Wikileaks folks, and the Russians, also hacked Trump’s e-mails but never disclosed them) were by far the most extensively reported news items in the mainstream media. All you have to do is wade through the October issues of the New York Times to see what I mean.

    • Caine

      Captcrisis, you stated, “You can’t cite any specific facts to support your argument.” I just did. Can YOU cite the “non-trivial” things that Trump admitted to and actually bragged about doing? And don’t tell me some bawdy locker room talk between two men by themselves from the Access Hollywood recordings are worse then the collusion between the main stream media and a political party. There is no comparison. Oh, and by the way, the WikiLeaks emails were not given air time by anyone except Fox News, Internet sites, and talk radio. The mainstream media only touched it to try and spin it into a story about hacking, not the substance of the emails. You really are blind to the facts. That’s why your side lost the election.

    • Howard

      Maybe you’d prefer to call it “really crappy journalism”? Americans (and no doubt residents of other countries, of course) have been getting fake news /RCJ for a very long time.

      Sometimes, of course, it is mere ignorance, like the “science reporters” who don’t know the difference between a galaxy and a constellation. If you have any kind of specialized knowledge — about science, history, religion, whatever — you will notice that reporters frequently make stupendous errors that indicate they have no idea what they are actually talking about. Still, that’s mostly innocent.

      Then there are the deliberate decisions to spice up the news — the sort of decisions that, in their extreme form and on the web, create what we now call clickbait. The decision by the Weather Channel to give names to winter storms associated with weather fronts is a moderate example. When they lean into a moderate breeze to make it look like a powerful wind, as has been done in some hurricane coverage, it’s a bit more blatantly dishonest; it’s a bit more genuinely fake news, even though the hurricane itself may be real news.

      The “clickbait” side of fake news may not rely on falsifying facts related to a single event, but choices of what is covered and what is ignored, together with exactly how it is covered, can make a continuation of the status quo seem like a sensational new emergency. For example, about 20 years ago we went through a rash of intense news scrutiny of the abduction of photogenic little girls. Don’t get me wrong: any such case is a disaster and an outrage, and these things should never happen. On the other hand, I doubt that there was a statistical explosion in the number of abductions, and I know danged well that some of the kids who were being abducted were not pretty little white, blonde girls. Likewise, the news suddenly decided about two years ago that it is national news whenever the police shoot an unarmed black man. Does anybody really think this had not been going on all along?

      Finally, there is frequently a distortion that can only be described as being in the service of a narrative. For example, during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, at one point the Bosnian Serbs were enjoying success on the battlefield, so having a position of strength, they offered to negotiate. The Bosnian Muslims were understandably reluctant to negotiate from a position of weakness, so they refused to come to the table, but this refusal was costing them diplomatically. Then an artillery shell landed in a Bosnian Muslim market and killed a large number of civilians. At first this was reported as having been tracked back to the frontier between the Serbs and the Muslims; radar was not able to distinguish who had launched the shell. A few days later, the shell was described as “a presumably Serbian shell”. A few more days, and it was just “a Serbian shell”. No evidence was presented to justify the change; aside from a confession (which did not happen), it’s not even clear what kind of evidence could justify the change. However, it simplified the narrative; it told the story the press wanted to tell; and very few people noticed the change. By the way, the narrative, which was taken up by various governments (and may have originated from them) meant that the shell benefited the Muslim combatants; it got them out of their diplomatic pickle and increased Western pressure on the Serbs (which also let the USA and NATO show off supporting nominally Muslim combatants over nominally Christian combatants).

      This has been going on for a long time. And yes, it is still going on today.

    • captcrisis

      All of what you say is true.

      But what I’m talking about is Trump saying things that even a non-specialist knows are clearly false — global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, undocumented immigrants are criminals, etc., etc.

    • Howard

      “Perpetrated by the Chinese” is a claim new to me. As for “undocumented immigrants”, they are by definition breaking a law, so that claim is not really any more false than a claim that shoplifters are criminals. On the other hand, I imagine just about everyone reading this has broken the speed limit, so in that sense we’re criminals, too.

      My point is not to defend Trump, which to me seems impossible. My point is that the “real” news media are unreliable at best and deceitful at worst. They’re pretty good at telling you the score of last night’s game or what the high temperature was today, but have to be taken with a grain of salt when they go beyond that.

    • Caine

      Howard, what happened with WikiLeaks last fall, though, was the first time that I can recall actual collusion occurring between the main stream media and the DNC in order to try and elect a specific presidential candidate. That’s very different then just bad reporting or having a narrative.
      Captcrisis, global warming is not necessarily false. Using Anthropomorphic Catastrophic Global Warming or “climate change” as a means to punish certain industries and place excessive taxes upon everyone is the scam. To repeatedly say that, “the climate change argument is over,” which has been a common saying from those supporting the idea of climate change, is hardly scientific. Every scientific fact is always up for debate. How often do current scientific findings contradict previous ones? The answer is frequently (i.e. Al Gore won a noble peace prize by stating in 2005 that in 2015 New York City and Miami would be under water – news flash – they’re not). Illegal Aliens are by definition ILLEGAL, etc. etc.

    • Howard

      The only surprise is anyone leaving written documents. Most of the collusion has, I suspect, taken place with winks and nods, and it usually doesn’t require lies, just the highlighting of some stories and the suppression of others. Or rather, it is easy to deliberately deceive with a series of statements, each of which is true — and that is the safest, most “professional” way to lie.