The fact that these dubious organizations pump out fake news with a clear ideological motive is excusable, the argument goes, on the grounds of equivalence. The mainstream news media is publishing “fake news” with an ideological motive, so what’s the difference?
There are plenty of credible arguments against this view, all of which are, of course, ignored.
For example, when MSM news orgs report something untrue, it is usually by mistake — rather than deliberately spreading falsehoods. Also, these mistakes are generally acknowledged when they happen.
That still leaves grounds for criticism. Any journalism that attempts to summarize a broader social issue with anecdotal evidence — a human-interest story on one refugee family — can be accused of cherry-picking and filtering reality. The same can be said of investigating one topic, rather than another. But at least the anecdotes and facts reported are true — even if the reporter's attempts to link them to a broader context are spurious.
The legacy news media is now locked in a struggle with fringe news orgs for the “hearts and minds,” or at least the eyeballs and ears, of the American public. Charges of "fake news" are routinely slung — even when truth is revealed.
But any missteps will also open it to charges of “fake news,” the key rhetorical tactic of the fringe news orgs — and a favorite slam employed regularly by President Trump.
Even more damaging is any editorial error that can be ascribed to an alleged ideological motive. That’s why CNN’s recent screw-up with a poorly sourced report on the Trump-Russia investigation is so significant.
This week, three journalists — Thomas Frank, Eric Lichtblau, and Lex Haris — have resigned from CNN after the cable network’s Web site published, then later retracted, a story claiming Congress was investigating a Russian investment fund with supposed ties to Trump.
The alleged links included a rumored meeting between the fund’s CEO and Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge-fund boss who was also a member of Trump’s transition team. The entire story appears to have been based on information from a single, anonymous source.
Scaramucci immediately responded by tweeting “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Supposedly, he called one of the reporters involved at the network’s Washington bureau chief to demand a retraction, threatening legal action. CNN swiftly pulled the story from its Web site and issued an apology to Scaramucci, who — in an odd twist, for 21st-century America — graciously accepted the apology and declared the matter resolved.
However, this didn’t save the jobs of the journos in question. The story predictably opened up CNN to the now-familiar charge of “fake news.” Except this time, there was something to it.
President Trump weighed in Tuesday morning, tweeting a victory lap: “Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!”
It’s worth highlighting the classic Trump move, as it's not particularly subtle. It's his regular rhetorical maneuver: CNN retracted one story, therefore, we can never trust anything the network ever publishes, period. (All its other stories are also exposed to public criticism and mostly stand up to scrutiny.)
In short, the real goal is not to get CNN to correct one error, but to discredit the news organization entirely, at least in the eyes of Trump’s followers.
Nor is CNN alone in facing questions — however overblown and politically motivated — about its editorial integrity.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal abruptly fired Jay Solomon, a veteran national security reporter, following revelations that he was apparently involved in behind-the-scenes deals with one of his contacts. The alleged dealings included a possible scheme to help Iran evade sanctions on its nuclear weapons program back in 2011, raising the possibility of conflicts of interest in his coverage of the region.