The real “Real” vs. the real “Fake”

have to confess that I’m bothered to distraction, at a deeply personal level, by the accusations from our President about “fake news.”  Having served as editor of a magazine which had a small team of fact checkers who did what they could to confirm everything we published, I can tell you that there are a number of news and information outlets that take very seriously the accuracy of what they report.  Among them, I would count the New York Times (which I have contributed to a few times), the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and CNN—all of which come from the old school ethos that you need to make sure you have the facts straight before you publish something.  People are fired instantly if the editor thinks they don’t totally conform to this viewpoint.

The same thing is true about our trade publications, one of which (Financial Planning) I edited with the aforementioned fact-checking team.  To the extent possible, all of them abide by the old-school way of practicing the art and profession of journalism: you get facts that exist, rather than the made-up variety, and you get accurate context.  And I would add that the standards are more stringent than just making sure the story is right; we of the old school also, to the extent possible, try to keep our own biases out of our reporting—or if we don’t, we put our opinions on a clearly-defined editorial page, and even then, we also feel it important to confess those biases up-front as clearly as possible, so people will have a fair chance to recognize and, if they wish, discount the bias.  To us of the old school, this is the only fair way of disseminating information to our readers.

Not everyone buys into this ethos, and this is where, in my opinion, the problem lies.  The rise of the Internet has created a cottage industry of self-appointed pundits and faux journalists who spread their views online with hardly a passing wave at the facts.  More insidiously, there are organizations devoted to publishing deliberately false stories on social media sites like Facebook, including a team based in Macedonia that gets paid by the story and is told the slant to put on the falsehoods. 

THIS, not the mainstream media, is where you find the fake news—by any reasonable definition.

But… Doesn’t the mainstream (what I’m calling old-school) media have its biases?  I actually debated that topic once some years ago, where the person on the other side of the debate pointed out that most newspapers tended to throw their support behind Democratic candidates, and were generally more progressive when they expressed their views on the editorial pages.  I surprised him by agreeing that, by and large, most mainstream media folks I knew tended to lean left in their (usually private) political views.

Why?  Because, I said, these people tend to be much closer to the facts than the rest of us.  They see up close which Congressional representatives, for example, shamelessly rake in campaign contributions from Wall Street firms and then do everything they can to, for example, overturn the DOL fiduciary rule or Dodd-Frank.  The journalists on the beat see, up close and personal, which Congressional representatives are honestly trying to fix the problems that we all face in this country.  That is not (I hastened to add then, and hasten to add now) an indictment of one political party or the other.  But I do think that the most honest representatives also happen to be trying harder to move this country forward regardless of the pressures of industry lobbyists, and that tends to be a progressive agenda, whichever side of the aisle you happen to be on.

They also believe that they represent, simply by pursuing the truth even when it’s inconvenient to those in power, an important check and balance in our society.  What happens when that is eroded, or goes away altogether?  Power, in all its various forms—corporate, political, financial—becomes less accountable to the rest of us as a result.  And on the other end, the purveyors who have little loyalty to the truth seem inevitably to serve the powerful against the rest of us.

What worries me most of all is that our President seems to have it backwards.  He’s calling the news organizations that have the strongest journalistic ethics “fake news,” and alas, that blanket indictment catches up our trade publications as well, because they share exactly the same ethics.  What I would call “fake news” are the online pundits who either seem to be making up facts or twisting them to fit their agenda—or, as I said before, are simply making up alarming stories to post on Facebook.  The result is that millions of people—and, perhaps, you, reading this—start to believe that up is down and down is up in my journalist world, and give credibility where it is not deserved, and take away credibility where it IS deserved.

I would encourage all of you to think for yourselves, and make your own judgments politically.  But please, I’m begging you as an old-school journalist myself, don’t give your trust to the less rigorous fact-gathering sources.  We’ve always had fake news among us; you’ve seen it for years in the stories about alien abductions and Elvis sightings across the covers of supermarket tabloids.  What worries me today is that sources of “news” even less credible than the tabloids are suddenly being held up as some kind of standard while the rest of us, toiling away trying to play fair, are in danger of losing the credibility and trust that we’ve tried to earn the hard way over decades of work on your behalf.