Who’s to blame for fake news? America’s real newsrooms

Let’s get at the problem by asking this question: Which is more dangerous — the entirely fabricated story your ornery uncle links to on Facebook, or the story we read in a respectable news source containing an important and substantially false claim? The fabricated story that exercises your uncle is dangerous in its way, but it’s unlikely to sway anyone’s opinion about the subject. The only people inclined to believe the hoax headline “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” are those who already loathe Clinton. The story may intensify hatred, but it doesn’t alter opinion or allegiance.

The false or inaccurate story published in a mainstream venue, by contrast, does the opposite. Maybe the story consists of mostly true statements, but it’s built on an egregiously false premise. Or maybe it includes a key line that infers far more than the facts allow. Or it presents a tendentious interpretation of the facts. Take this sentence, published last week in the New York Times about House Republicans breaking with Trump over the latter’s trade policies. “He [Trump] repeatedly insisted that trade deals had displaced American workers and harmed the economy, upending two centuries of American economic policies that held trade up as a good thing, a position that Republicans have pushed in recent decades.” The latter half of the sentence (a) implies that Trump opposes, not just disadvantageous trade deals, but trade itself; and (b) suggests that American policy has unswervingly favored free trade for 200 years. Both are false, but the uncareful reader may easily imbibe one or both without realizing it, so subtle is the misinformation and so authoritative the source.

I don’t know the reporter’s views, but the article’s tone leads me to suspect that a dislike of Trump gave her license to interpret his pronouncements in the worst possible light, even at the cost of sense and factual truth. And that — the ever-present danger of allowing our likes and dislikes to dictate our interpretations of facts — may be what mainstream journalists preoccupied with “fake news” haven’t yet appreciated.