BALTIMORE – In January of this year, the Empire Herald reported that a “meth-addled couple” had eaten a homeless man in New York City’s Central Park.
Later, Now8News reported that a can of cookie dough had “exploded in a woman’s vagina”; the woman was alleged to be shoplifting.
Recent big news: Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was shot and killed. The assailant looked a lot like a 21st-century version of Gavrilo Princip, who lit the fuse for World War I by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Bosnia.
By the time it was over, 16 million people were dead…
We are writing a series on things that people think they know but ain’t so… popular ideas that are wrong, dumb, or misconstrued… which is practically all of them.
In the press lately, for example, is the idea of “fake news.”
Supposedly, there is true news, filtered, approved, and administered by the elite media establishment. And there is fake news, such as the deliberately faked stories about cookie dough and meth-addled couples at the beginning of this Diary. And there is also news provided by Russian manipulators that supposedly cost Hillary Clinton the White House.
Separating fake from authentic is what we try to do here at the Diary. But we are overwhelmed.
Half the news is fake, including many of the biggest stories you get from the major media outlets… and reports of fake news! The other half is just mistaken and/or misleading.
In the run-up to America’s entry into World War I, for example, the English cut the cable that gave the U.S. direct access to news from Germany. Henceforth, most of the “news” read by Americans about the war came via England, where it was heavily redacted.
The English spun tall tales of German perfidy and German atrocities – including nuns who had been mass raped and children whose arms had been cruelly cut off by the barbarous Huns. None of it was true.
But it did its work; in 1917, gullible Americans rushed troops to join the war… on the side of the English.
News is rarely what it pretends to be. It is not a bloodless recitation of indisputable facts, like a list of the temperatures recorded at the North Pole.
Instead, every bit of it is informed and persuaded by a web of ideas, myths, and misconceptions. Otherwise, the news would be meaningless.
Every day, millions… no, billions and zillions… of things happen.
The Roman poet Lucretius, way ahead of his time, described life as particles in random collision… Mr. Jones says something to Mr. Smith… a cold breeze blows across the public parks of Duluth… a bird flies into a window pane in Georgia.
If you really wanted to report what happened, you’d have an infinite amount of material.
Obviously, you couldn’t do that. Even if you knew what had happened. So, you apply some artificial standards… some “categorical imperatives,” as Kant called them. You try to make sense of the world and its goings on by labeling things and putting them on shelves.
It is one thing for a man on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, to kill another man in the heat of passion. It is quite another for a man in Ankara to gun down the Russian ambassador.
Both involve passions. Both involve men. Both stories end with a corpse. But the former is not newsworthy. Different shelf.
The media decides. It tells us that whatever Mr. Jones said to Mr. Smith, it is not worth reporting. It leaves the cold breeze story to The Weather Channel. As for the poor little bird, who gives a damn?
Purveyors of Puffery
Your editor has been the subject of news stories from time to time. Unless the article was pure puffery, intended merely to flatter or entertain, the reporters missed the point or misconstrued the facts in such a way that the reader knew less after he had read the article than before.
In one sad instance, an ex-employee committed suicide, distraught over a personal problem. It happened at a time when one of our groups was being investigated by the SEC. (The case ended up as a legal fascination… complicated, but inconsequential… and later largely repudiated by the courts…)
The ex-employee was in no way associated with the alleged wrongdoing. And the infraction had nothing to do with the SEC’s usual beat – front-running or market manipulation. But the reporter couldn’t resist: “Suicide at Troubled Baltimore Publisher,” read the headline.
The reader was left to conclude that the poor fellow offed himself because he was implicated in a trading scam that had never happened or even been alleged.
In another article in the 1980s, your editor was named as part of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” He had been the director of the National Taxpayers Union, earnestly trying to fight waste in government.
Later, he had hired a private investigator to look into the curious death of Hillary Clinton’s law partner, Vince Foster. And now he was criticizing the Clinton administration! The reporter linked us together with other Clinton critics and provided a common cause that never existed.
And now, The Washington Post, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has accused a number of websites and opinion blogs of purveying fake news, some of it fed to them by Russian agents!
Yes, Naked Capitalism, Truthdig, Contra Corner, CounterPunch – websites run by former Wall Street Journal editors, former congressmen, former Reagan-era officials… left, right, libertarian – and dozens of others were named.