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Rants & Reason

Taking stock of ‘Fake News’

8/1/2018

From Tigranes to Trump.

To cope with frustrations over “Fake News,” we might consider what “Fake” isn’t and what “News” is.

As for what “Fake” isn’t, many antonyms say it is not genuine, honest, accurate, true, sincere, legitimate, etc.

What’s proclaimed as “News” in TV promos and in press headlines has pitfalls of its own. By its nature, “News” is incomplete and sometimes not genuine or accurate — providing fodder for those screaming “Fake News.”

So-called “Breaking News,” or first accounts of events, are by definition incomplete — no one knows what’s really going on. Yet the Internet, press and TV put a premium on such items thanks to our 24/7 news coverage. One person killed in an accident often turns out to be two or three; an alarming report of a kidnapping turns out to be a domestic dispute over custody. The word “breaking” should alert the audience that the situation is unclear.

Authentic? Genuine? Used to be that news releases from interest groups or government agencies were treated with disdain in the newsroom — always having to be checked for accuracy, authenticity. Now such news releases provide a good portion of unquestioned content from reporters and bloggers who don’t check out the stuff.

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Even with the best of efforts, news accounts may provide a “specious present” for us. Sociologist Robert Park in 1940 coined that term — “the specious present” — to characterize how much of what we think we know about the day’s events is uncertain. Park, a one-time newspaperman himself, said news is “a very perishable commodity” with “transient and ephemeral quality.” We live in a “specious present” because we try to make sense of things despite the obstacles to understanding what’s going on around us. Yet, “The function of news,” Park wrote, “is to orient man and society in an actual world. In so far as it succeeds, it tends to preserve the sanity of the individual and the permanence of society.”

Perhaps mindful of how great it would be to achieve a sane society, Park thought, “Ours, it seems, is an age of news, and one of the most important events in American civilization has been the rise of the reporter.”

That’s a lot for journalists to aim for!

But a well-oriented and sane citizenry is not always welcomed by political leaders and power-wielding or power-seeking groups. Their efforts to avoid discomforting or critical commentary are the stuff of history and day-to-day life. The cry of “Fake News” is a time-worn, inane device to discredit what people refuse to recognize or deal with.

Much as President Trump portrays himself as a victim of “Fake News,” he’s a few thousand years late with the idea. (At a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Denver, one of the scrolls was termed “Pseudepigrapha,” or “false writings,” because of its reworking of Ezekiel 37.)

Foes of President Trump point out that AdolfHitler and his Nazis in the 1930s wailed about the “Lügenpresse” or the “Lying Press” to discredit critics. Far right supporters of Trump have shouted “Lügenpresse” at political rallies.

But even the Nazis and other news decriers are late comers to the notion of discrediting or punishing the messenger for bringing news they don’t like or don’t want others to consider. The kill-the-messenger concept was a concern of Greek philosophers even before Plutarch (46-120).

Plutarch wrote of Tigranes, an Armenian king, who, upon hearing bad news from a battlefront, had the messenger’s head cut off, so no else dared bring him honest reports. Tigranes was content “giving ear only to those who flattered him.”

Frustrations with “Fake News” are compounded by the speed and spread of information transmission. Thanks to the Internet, we’re easy targets for deception by those ranging from teenage hackers and spammers to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Today’s situation makes Park’s views of the “specious present” almost quaint.

The damage done by creating or alleging “Fake News” will always haunt us. The recourse or best defense is to take responsibility for our critical assessment of the events of the day — even if it means acknowledging and dealing with information contrary to what we wish would be the case. ♦

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants and Reason column for CITYVIEW.

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