When Jim DeMint wanted to dis a TV interviewer’s suggestion that Obamacare has merits as well as flaws, the former senator and tea partyer used a handy put-down: “You can put all that under the category of fake news.”
When conspiracy theorist Alex Jones wanted to deny a CNN report that Ivanka Trump would take over the East Wing offices traditionally occupied by the first lady, he used the same label.
And when a writer for an arch-conservative website needed a put-down for ABC’s chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, he reached for the obvious: “fake-news propagandist.”
Fake news has a real meaning — deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public. For example: The one falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, or the one alleging without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election.
But though the term hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost. Faster than you could say “Pizzagate,” the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.
“The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become,” said George Washington University professor Nikki Usher.
As Jeremy Peters wrote in The New York Times: “Conservative cable and radio personalities, top Republicans and even Mr. Trump himself … have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.”
So, here’s a modest proposal for the truth-based community.
Let’s get out the hook and pull that baby offstage. Yes: Simply stop using it.
Instead, call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name. After all, “fake news” is an imprecise expression to begin with.
“Fake news means different things to different people,” Usher told me. “Is it satire? Comedy news? Partisan conspiracy? Partisan journalism? Big mistakes reliable news institutions have made, or hoaxes they fell for?”
What’s more, the term is being used to discredit — or at least muddy the waters for — legitimate fact-checking efforts.
Glenn Kessler, who writes The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, put it this way: “People seem to confuse reporting mistakes by established news organizations with obviously fraudulent news produced by Macedonian teenagers.” (BuzzFeed reported in early November that young Macedonians were setting up sites on Facebook devoted to click-baity, pro-Trump deception, and reaping advertising profits.)
Kessler noted that he’s often asked by readers to investigate “fake news” that is nothing more than a correctable error in legitimate journalism.
BuzzFeed, meanwhile, is digging in deeper to the rise of deliberate deception in the form of news stories, with the appointment of debunking expert Craig Silverman, formerly of Poynter.org, as its media editor.
Breitbart News — long run by Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon — took a whack at that move in an article titled, “How BuzzFeed Editor Craig Silverman Helped Generate the ‘Fake News’ Crisis.” Its point: That BuzzFeed ginned up the left’s concern over these online lies by reporting on them just before the election when they had actually been around all along. (Breitbart writer Jerome Hudson noted that the Guardian had reported on the Macedonian sites earlier, but BuzzFeed’s piece made it go viral.)
Don’t get me wrong. Lies in the form of news stories are a real problem, and in need of real attention. That became abundantly clear when a North Carolina man walked his assault rifle into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria recently to “self-investigate” what he’d read on the internet: made-up nonsense about a nonexistent child prostitution ring involving Hillary Clinton.
We need to find a way to talk about it. Usher, for one, isn’t ready to dispense with the term because she thinks it serves a purpose for “the politically independent, moderately informed, regular voter … who hasn’t decamped yet to polarized media” — a way to express concern about mistakes, misinformation and conspiracy all at once.
Indeed, all those problems are real, and discussing them important. But putting them all in a blender and slapping on a fuzzy name doesn’t move us forward.
“Fake news” has had its 15 minutes of fame. Let’s put this tainted term out of its misery.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.