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.