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George Boardman: Fake news a lot like pornography; People know it when they see it

George Boardman

Observations from the center stripe: Cheerleading edition

THE RECENT dustup over alleged tampering with an audit of the office of the president at UC shows the regents are more cheerleaders than overseers. That needs to change … INVESTMENT TIP: Sell the stock of a company that says it had a bad first quarter because the IRS was slow mailing out refunds. And unless a key plant is disabled by a storm, sell the stock of any company that blames its poor performance on the weather … I DON’T know about you, but I get queasy just thinking about something called gas station nacho cheese sauce … MAGICAL THINKING: Few people outside the Trump administration believe we can achieve the long-term economic growth required to balance his budget in 10 years … THAT’S BETTER: The revised health care reform bill passed by the House means just 23 million people instead of 24 million will lose their medical coverage …

While it is way too early to know the legacy of President Donald Trump, it is safe to say the term “fake news” will be with us for many years to come.

Trump didn’t invent the term (like, say, “prime the pump”) but he has made it popular shorthand for any news story that is deemed false or misleading. His supporters have certainly picked up the cue, using the term indiscriminately to cast doubt on any story that portrays the president in a negative manner.

Most of the blame is ascribed to the so-called “mainstream” media (previously known as the “lamestream” media for being bootlickers during the Obama years) that can only be countered by truth seekers like Sean Hannity, The Drudge Report, InfoWars, Heatstreet and other patriotic news gathers.

(To be fair, not all of the skepticism toward the mainstream media is on the right. The New York Times is catching flak and losing some subscribers because it hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens, one the sharpest thinkers and best writers around. And in this very newspaper, another columnist concluded recently that the media was lying for suggesting there’s an ideological debate going on in the California Democratic Party.)

Trump’s supporters are convinced the media’s out to get him, and they point to a recent study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy as proof. Researchers looked at coverage of Trump’s first 100 days in office in 10 major TV and print outlets, and concluded the tone of the coverage was negative as much as 98 percent of the time — it was even 52 percent at Fox News.

But tone isn’t bias; it’s how the content of a story reflects on the president. If Trump’s spokesmen say FBI Director James Comey was fired based on a recommendation from the Justice Department and then Trump contradicts them by saying he was going to fire Comey anyway, who’s responsible for the negative tone of the coverage? If you deliberately shoot yourself in the foot, you don’t blame the gun manufacturer (although you could probably find a lawyer who would).

Trump supporters are also convinced the mainstream media will print anything negative they hear about the president without bothering to verify its truthfulness. Conservative talk show host Bill Mitchell tweeted the following suggestion recently:

“You know what we should do? Start flooding the NYTimes and WAPO (The Washington Post) tip lines with all kinds of crazy ‘leaks.’ Then laugh when they print them!”

What Mitchell and others don’t seem to understand is that reporters and editors actually verify this stuff before they print it. The most famous example is the Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal. Editor Ben Bradlee insisted that reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward get two independent sources to verify every tip, rumor or leak before they could use it in a story. It slowed down the reporting, but it produced largely bulletproof journalism.

On a more prosaic level, reporters and editors at any mainstream newspaper will tell you they spend a lot of time trying to verify tips, rumors and claims that come their way. The vast majority of this hot news doesn’t pass the smell test and never sees the light of day.

That’s more than you can say for the media many of Trump’s supporters rely on to report the real truth about what’s going on. The most current example of how the alt right drumbeaters promote the news they want to believe is the possibility that a member of the staff of the Democratic National Committee may have leaked the DNC emails to Wikileaks, and was killed in retaliation.

Seth Rich, who had worked for the DNC for about a year, was killed while on a late night walk in Washington, D.C., last summer. The investigation is still open, but DC police suspect it was a botched robbery. Those lurking in the dark recesses of the media ascribe a more sinister motive to his death.

The speculation started last August when Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks who is well-known for his probity and honesty, said whistle blowers who supply information to Wikileaks take significant risks, and pointed to Rich’s death as an example. But when pressed by an interviewer, he wouldn’t say whether Rich was Wikileaks’ source of the DNC emails.

Then came Rod Wheeler, a private detective who is a regular on Fox News, who told Fox’s D.C. affiliate there was “tangible evidence” Rich communicated with Wikileaks before his death. When pressed by CNN the next day, Wheeler said he had “no evidence” about such contact and “only learned about the possible existence of such evidence” through a reporter from Fox News.

Now we have Kim Dotcom, a fugitive from justice, claiming he hooked up with Rich to leak the emails to Wikileaks. In case you’re not familiar with Dotcom, he was the operator of the Megaupload pirating site before he was busted a couple of years ago in New Zealand. He is currently fighting extradition to the U.S., where he faces 13 charges of racketeering, copyright infringement, money laundering and wire fraud that could get him 20 years in prison.

So there you have it: Two fugitives from justice and a detective who can’t get his story straight managed to excite many of Trump’s supporters, including Newt Gingrich, who yearns to be relevant again, and Hannity, Trump’s No. 1 media fanboy. Alas, the story appears to be dying. Fox News has retracted a story it published on its news site, and even Hannity has backed off the story.

But that won’t deter the truth seekers on the right. The ability of Trump supporters to separate “fake news” from the real thing reminds me of Justice Potter Stewart’s observation about pornography: They know it when they see it.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.


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