‘Fake News’ and the Shifting Media Landscape
After it became suddenly clear on the evening of November 8 that Donald J. Trump had won the U.S. presidential election, many Americans suffered a great jolt. “I’m still having a hard time getting myself used to standing on this Earth right now,” said msnbc commentator Chris Matthews the next evening. “This is a different Earth today than it was 24 hours ago.”
Before the vote, Matthews and hundreds of thousands of others had existed inside a certain version of America. In that America, several things were clear: Mr. Trump was a racist, sexist individual who was equal parts monster and clown; he had no real chance of victory; and the political right was comprised mainly of white supremacists destined to be beaten into guilty submission by the unstoppable force of social justice warriors and other progressives.
But that was not the actual America. It wasn’t real.
It was a narrative, a fabricated version of the country. The fabrication was so pervasive, the narrative so elaborate and so carefully formed, that it deceived even many of those who were helping to weave it, such as Matthews.
For those living inside that version of America, the polls and surveys all agreed. So did all the news stories. All the posts they saw in their Facebook and Twitter feeds were in agreement too—save a handful from that embarrassing redneck cousin.
But it was a mass-shared illusion. And with Trump’s win, the news bubble they were living inside abruptly popped. That version of America was revealed to be false.
And the alarming thing is that this false reality and news bubble were created mostly by the mainstream media.
Rather than striving to discover the truth and objectively report it, most mainstream media outlets wanted to sell their preferred narrative, to win others over to believing it, and to suppress opponents into feeling like the hopelessly, righteously outnumbered, bigoted minority.
This was evident when the New York Times—the country’s leading paper— made no real effort to hide its switch from reporting to advocacy, and ceased offering even a pretense of impartiality. A stark example of this came on Aug. 7, 2016, when the self-styled “paper of record” ran a front-page story saying many journalists felt they had to sacrifice objectivity during the presidential race because they believe “dangerous” Trump is driven by “nationalistic tendencies.”
Two weeks later, when news broke of a major Clinton Foundation scandal— 85 of 154 individuals who had had an audience with Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State had previously donated to the foundation— the Times made no mention of it. This was evidence of “pay to play” at its worst by the Democratic Party candidate, but the Times had no use for the story among its 46 pages of “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Michael Goodwin, who spent a decade writing for the Times, said that contrary to the publication’s “Fit to Print” slogan, “The truth is that only news that fits the party line gets printed” (FoxNews.com, Aug. 24, 2016).
Such news executives, seeing the world through a thick leftist lens, decided their obligation to truth, objectivity and fairness was outweighed by their bias against Trump. After Trump’s victory, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Dean Baquet admitted that the paper’s newsroom had to suddenly turn “on a dime.” Turn from what? From the relentless partisan bigotry that had skewed their election coverage.
Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, said, “All season long, the pro-Hillary press treated Trump’s followers with utter contempt. At the same time, the left-wing media were giving aid and comfort to Hillary Clinton, covering up her scandals when they could, spinning them in her favor when they couldn’t. … We documented it all season long.”
The media’s fixation with the narrative was also evident in the months and weeks leading up to the vote, when mainstream sources published and fixated on a flurry of polls saying Trump could not possibly accumulate enough support to win.
On Election Day, the New York Times said, “Hillary Clinton has an 85 percent chance to win.” The Huffington Post blog was even more optimistic, saying its presidential forecast model gave “Clinton a 98.2 percent chance of winning.” Newsweek took it a step further, sending out 125,000 copies of a commemorative magazine with Clinton’s smiling picture on the cover and the headline “Madam President.” After Trump’s victory was clear, the magazines were recalled, but you can buy copies on eBay for anywhere from $75 to $2,500 each.
How could polls, supposedly one of the more scientific and objective parts of the mainstream news, have gotten it so wrong? There are many theories, and it is impossible to pin down. But part of the reason was due to bullying behavior of many of those who supported Clinton, and who said Trump supporters were idiots at best and racists at worst. At one point in the campaign, Clinton herself demonstrated this by saying, “You can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
These kinds of sentiments were echoed over and over by mainstream sources and left-leaning opinion leaders. But many Trump supporters didn’t agree with this assessment of themselves. Still, they didn’t want to be called racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic or deplorable, so instead of triggering the wrath of social justice warriors, they often kept quiet about who their vote would actually go to, thereby skewing some polling data.
At various points in the lead-up to the election, Mr. Trump’s team said those polls and projections that the media were so confident in were significantly understating his actual support in key states.
But several fact-checking organizations said these claims were false and that the polls were right. Time revealed that those polls were wrong. They were part of the fabrication. Part of the narrative.
So now that the thunderbolt has struck, and the mainstream media’s biases, partisanship and disinformation have come to light, how are these outlets reacting? Are they chastised, humbled, rending their garments, wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes, trying to correct their imbalances? No. Instead, many are claiming victimhood, deflecting blame and doubling-down on the narrative.
‘It’s the Alternative Media’s Fault’
In 1996, powerful media moguls rejoiced when President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act that significantly boosted their power and influence. But in the years that followed, many such moguls recoiled at the rise of unexpected competition, in the form of alternative news sources, mostly via the Internet.
Many alternative sources have become quite powerful in their own right. For example, during October 2016, the conservative aggregation site Drudge Report received a total of 1.73 billion page views. That’s more than cnn’s 984 million, the New York Times’ 642 million and Reuters’ 85 million combined. And many of the stories Drudge highlighted during this pivotal pre-election month carried a pro-Trump message.
After the election upset, and after issuing a flaccid non-apology apology, the New York Times editorial board deflected blame for their biased coverage, saying a solution to the problem would be to censor nonmainstream news sources, and online platforms that disseminate their stories. “Most of the fake news stories are produced by scammers looking to make a quick buck,” it wrote. “The vast majority of them take far-right positions. But a big part of the responsibility for this scourge rests with Internet companies like Facebook and Google, which have made it possible for fake news to be shared nearly instantly with millions of users and have been slow to block it from their sites” (Nov. 19, 2016).
President Obama echoed these sentiments: “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”
It is true that many sites exist only to peddle misinformation and propaganda for profit or for fun. The headlines are comical: “Obama Signs Order Banning Pledge of Allegiance,” “Hillary Team Conspires with George Soros to Give Donald Trump Cancer,” and “Trump Was Born in Pakistan and Not in America!”
It’s beyond dispute that such sites do a disservice to readers, particularly those too naïve to recognize their falsehoods. But, despite the mainstream media’s claims to the contrary, there weren’t nearly enough people who believed these kinds of patently false stories to throw the election to Trump. And it wasn’t fake news that inflated the media bubble whose abrupt popping jolted many left-leaning Americans.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the current fake news hype is the chance it gives to mainstream institutions who yearn for the days when their opinions went nearly unchallenged to harness it as a means of muzzling not just scammers trying to make a buck, but also their credible competitors who simply have a different viewpoint.
Who Determines What’s ‘Fake’?
No one would argue that sites engaged in fabrication of stories—such as the one about a pedophile ring operating out of a Clinton-linked pizzeria—are not peddling fake news. But the issue begins to become more complicated when news sites that are not mainstream, but which do strive for accuracy and truth, are targeted.
Writing for Townhall on December 10, John Hawkins said: “[L]iberals being liberals, they lump pretty much every conservative website that gives them a case of the ‘sads’ into the ‘fake news’ category. Breitbart? Fake news. Right -wing news? Fake news. Redstate? Fake news. What they really want is to use ‘fake news’ as an excuse to encourage social media platforms to censor conservatives.”
Writing for Forbes on November 17, Frank Miniter explained that many are attempting to harness the fake news scare in order to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine, a principle that granted the U.S. government powers to determine what media content was neutral before President Ronald Reagan abolished it: “Many Democrats … think government is a fair arbitrator that can neutrally decide when someone can speak, even on a privately owned station; in fact, after the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats began pushing to allow government regulators to act again as censors by listening to broadcasts and fining those it doesn’t think presents both sides fairly. Now some are using the ‘fake news’ phenomena as an excuse to reinvite this kind of government control over First Amendment-protected speech or by asking Facebook and Twitter to become even bigger censors of certain views.”
Political activist Egberto Willies leans to the left but agrees that the trend has potential dangers. He wrote on November 28: “This new concern by the mainstream media for ‘fake news’ after the election is disingenuous. … They want to blame Americans’ ignorance on the misinformation they receive from Facebook and other social media, thus reducing the credulity of the medium with the expectation of gaining back the audience they’ve lost to social media. Unfortunately, what the mainstream media want you to ignore is that they were, in fact, the catalyst for misinformation” (Daily Kos).
While actual fake news truly is destructive, the sudden hysteria surrounding it is partly an attempt by mainstream media to deflect blame for their own transgressions and to disparage their competition. It is not difficult to see how the drive to kill fake news could be expanded to include legitimate nonmainstream sources. It isn’t difficult to see how such a crusade could be used to silence dissent and unpopular opinions—even when that dissent and those opinions are truthful.
‘Truth Is Fallen’
In today’s media world, both mainstream and alternative news sources have moved away from objectively reporting the truth in favor of more biased, opinion-based messages. Truth simply isn’t valued as it once was.
The Bible—the same Bible our magazine bases its forecasts on—foretold a time when media and society would not value truth: “None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity. … And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. Yea, truth faileth …” (Isaiah 59:4, 14-15).
Does this landscape in which “truth is fallen in the street” and “truth fails” sound like an apt description of today’s narrative-driven media? God inspired the Prophet Isaiah to write this passage more than 2,700 years ago, but it is describing the situation in America today. (To prove this for yourself, please request our free booklet Isaiah’s End-Time Vision.)
The shift we are witnessing toward a “post-truth” media landscape in which “truth fails” is sobering. But there is great cause for hope. The Bible makes clear that God’s love “rejoices in the truth,” and that the “truth will set you free” (1 Corinthians 13:6; John 8:32).
A time is rapidly approaching when truth will be universally prized. The entire world will rejoice in truth and appropriately value it. Pure truth will be proclaimed to all people. Through Isaiah, God said: “[T]he earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
World-renowned educator Herbert W. Armstrong wrote about this rapidly approaching, truth-filled future era in his booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like. He wrote: [I]f everyone told the truth—everyone’s word were good—everyone were honest …—what a happy world we would have!” Mr. Armstrong explained that we will soon have that truth-loving and happy world, under the reign of Jesus Christ. “The only hope of justice—of peace—of truth—of right solutions to all this world’s problems, is the coming in power and glory of Christ to set up world government. Right government. The government of God! … Light will replace darkness—truth will replace error. Understanding will replace crass materialism. True knowledge will replace intellectual ignorance.”
Truth is precious beyond words. And we can be filled with hope knowing that it will soon saturate all media.