Our View: Fake news nothing new, but still a threat to an informed public | TheUnion.com

Our View: Fake news nothing new, but still a threat to an informed public

The Union Editorial Board

Our community should take pride that each September, Nevada City hosts a weekend full of festivities to celebrate the Constitution of the United States of America.

On Sunday, for the 51st year, Nevada City will host a re-enactment of the Sept. 17, 1787 signing of the U.S. Constitution and a parade through town.

It's not a common celebration across the country, despite the document — signed 230 years ago — established our national government and its laws, while also guaranteeing certain basic rights for American citizens. It's the foundation of our freedoms, including five basic freedoms guaranteed through the First Amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Our Founding Fathers considered freedom of the press so fundamental to a free nation that it was among the first guaranteed. It seems a far cry from today, when reporters and entire news organizations are dismissed as "Fake News," a determination largely dependent on a person's political persuasion often regardless of accuracy in reporting.

Fake news has become a recent fascination — among the top terms searched online in February 2017 — but it's hardly a new thing. It's existence extends far beyond the current conversation or the rise of those grocery aisle tabloids.

Recommended Stories For You

In fact, one of the two men who founded this very newspaper 153 years ago, James W.E. Townsend, was notoriously known as "Lying Jim."

One of Townsend's editors at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nev., Wells Drury, considered Townsend, a contemporary of Mark Twain, as "a unique specimen, by all odds the most original writer and versatile liar that the west coast, or any other coast, ever produced."

"To read his paper you would think that it was published in a city of ten thousand inhabitants," Drury wrote. "He had a mayor and a city council, whose proceedings he reported once a week, although they never existed, and enlivened his columns with killings, law suits, murder trials and railroad accidents, and a thousand incidents of daily life in a humming, growing town — every last one of which he coined out of his own active brain. … He was called 'Lying Jim' Townsend to the day of his death and could he have had his way it would have been graven on his tombstone."

Today's journalists still seek to share stories, but ones based in factual reporting that will leave their audience more informed by their work.

The League of Women Voters hosted a discussion this week on fake news, featuring Brooke Binkowski, an editor from Snopes.com, and someone purported to be "Randall Finkelstein" of the Nevada County Scooper website. The conversation sought to define fake news, how to spot it and what differentiates it from satire.

Binkowski noted the long history of "fake news," as well as its recent rise largely through social media and websites purporting to be legitimate, and encouraged attendees to check the source of the information.

But whether a source is to be considered legitimate, satirical or actually as "fake news" depends on whom you ask. Although "Finkelstein" told the audience the Scooper's role is largely "being the court jester" through its satirical site, Binkowski's organization lists it among the top fake news sites.

These days, some scoff at the "mainstream media" as legitimate news sources. Some of our nation's top news agencies have been regularly degraded as "fake" by our president, who in February 2017 referred to the press as "the enemy of the American people."

Certainly news agencies sometimes get the story wrong. And when one "considers the source" one should also consider whether the source of the inaccurate information actually seeks to correct the record — acknowledging the mistake and clarifying actual factual information. Without taking such a step and owning the error, the source should expect his or her credibility to be called into question.

Fake news, particularly the sort that seeks to mislead and was so prevalent in the 2016 election cycle, is a detriment to our democratic republic and should be considered as such.

If we cannot agree on facts, how will we agree on anything?

Labeling the press as "fake news" based not in the adherence to facts but to political persuasion, threatens the role of a free press and its ability to inform the American public, as we all seek to fulfill the promise of our Constitution "to form a more perfect Union."

The weekly Our View column represents the consensus opinion of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.

The weekly Our View column represents the consensus opinion of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.

Go back to article