Fake news is no joke

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Among the more pernicious aspects of the Donald Trump phenomenon is the way his political success has elevated the deplorable pollution of conscientious American journalism with a new form of manipulating and deceiving public opinion — what is now widely referred to as “fake news.”

Trump did not, of course, invent this phenomenon that now corrupts the pool of information that now daily affects what Americans rely on in forming their judgments about public affairs and the high-profile figures whose words and actions dominate the national discourse.

But during his successful presidential campaign and since then, Trump has been both a principal trafficker in misinformation. He recently claimed falsely that he really won the popular vote, when it was carried by Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million ballots in the official count.

Trump seemed to be alleging that many of his voters were denied greater opportunity vote for him by a rigged system, though very few irregularities were found by election officials at voting places anywhere. Beyond that, Trump was and remains in the front line of warriors against professional journalists engaged in what is called the mainstream media.

The label generally refers to print media but also is now attached to radio, television and the Internet, where made-up news reports and commentary flourish and are spread exponentially through social media vehicles like Facebook and Instagram.

They and similar conveyers for citizen spreaders of personal opinion, idle chatter, rumor and gossip have made small and even large fortunes playing on an insatiable public appetite for all manner of human discourse over the national backyard fence. Much of the content is amusing and harmless.

But much of it also is intentional and willfully misleading disinformation, particularly from practitioners enticed by malice or greed. They corrupt that discourse with abject lies and falsehoods, poisoning free expression and arousing racial or ethnic bigotry among those who read and hear them.

The whole American populace is the victim, but especially the world of professional journalism, which takes on as its public role and obligation the conveying of factual information on which the rest of the society can base its assessment of the public servants they elect to represent them at all levels of our government.

At the obvious risk of being charged with pomposity and self-pleading, working reporters and editors in print and electronic newsgathering, conveying and analysis function on the assumption they are serving the public interest, providing the prime ingredients of that discourse, usually at unimpressive weekly salaries.

At the top of the journalistic food chain, a relative few “newsies” attain celebrity status and fat salaries, particularly on television. But the bulk of their colleagues, especially in print and on local newspapers across the country, labor through a love of the game and a sense they are doing worthwhile jobs in their communities.

To such perhaps naive souls, the onslaught of fake news masquerading as the real thing constitutes a major corruption of the lifeblood of functioning democracy in our unique form of self-government, and a mockery of their honest efforts. To one such soul who has persevered for nearly seven decades in the trenches of print journalism striving to adhere to the basic ground rules of seeking out and reporting what is actually said and done, “fake news” is an abominable cancer on that undertaking.

Facebook’s recent decision to use professional fact-checkers to assess and hang warnings on items of questionable material is a step in the right direction. Many defenders of unfettered free speech may howl, but this cancer cannot go unchallenged, especially with a conspicuous and very vocal hater of the journalistic profession is on the very doorstep of the White House, giving every sign of persevering as president of the United States in undermining its credibility.

The old New York Times slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” has never been more under siege than today, and in need of internal and external examination in light of what is being offered now from all quarters.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.