FAKE NEWS

 

What Donald Trump means by fake news is not the reporting of what’s materially false. It’s the reporting as true what only could be true. It could be true – because it would be perfectly understandable if it were – that “the President is becoming increasingly worried that the Mueller probe could lead to his impeachment.” If asked, of course he’d deny it. In fact nothing could falsify the claim that “the President is becoming increasingly worried that the Mueller probe could lead to his impeachment.” So CNN can with impunity report that “the President is becoming increasingly worried about” whatever CNN would like the President to become increasingly worried about. If he denies it, well he would, wouldn’t he?!

It’s the oldest political trick in the book. If a claim can’t be falsified it must be true. Prove that you didn’t have an affair with your secretary. Can’t? Then obviously you did. That’s what Trump means by fake news, and it’s that kind of fake news that we should all become increasingly worried about.

Fake news – what we used to call spin – isn’t harmless. Saddam Hussain could have had weapons of mass destruction. And though weapons of mass destruction is a media term, not a military one, his having them could be very serious. So yes, we do need to invade. All that CNN is proving is that what was fair game for the pro-Bush agenda in 2003 is fair game for the anti-Trump agenda today.

Here’s a related example. There’s been a terrible accident, and all the townspeople are in shock. How does the reporter know this? She can stop a townsperson on the street and ask the leading question, “You must be in shock. Are you?”, which is sure to elicit the desired answer, “Yes.” But were she to ask the non-leading question, “What are you in?”, I’m pretty sure no one is going to answer, “Shock.” Still, she can and will with impunity report that all the townspeople are in shock because it wouldn’t be unreasonable if they were.

Is anything added to our understanding of what’s going on in that town by our believing all its townspeople are in shock? Not a whit. But it elicits our solidarity with these hypothetical people-in-shock, and now our solidarity with them can in turn be reported on. And so on.

Am I saying all this to express my solidarity with poor misunderstood-because-misrepresented Donald Trump? Certainly not. Am I saying all this because I want the news to report the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? A fortiori not. In fact I’m having trouble picturing what that would look like.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”

“Okay, then I’ll interview someone who can. Excuse me sir …”

“I just saw the World Trade Center come down before my very eyes.”

“And tell us, what was that like for you?”

“It was like seeing two very tall buildings come down before my very eyes.”

“Thank you, sir. Now back to you, Anderson.”

So the news isn’t there just to report what’s happening. It’s there to start a conversation about it. And to steer that conversation. To suppose otherwise isn’t naïve. It’s just false.

Few channels, and even fewer websites, take the trouble to announce what kinds of conversation they host. But most of us figure it out pretty quick. Fox News isn’t about balanced reporting, and neither is MSNBC. Birthright isn’t about your right to give birth, it’s about your duty to. False Flag Weekly isn’t a soapbox for your Islamophobia, but InfoWars is. But it’s important to know that neither is the best place to register your sympathy for the parents of the children who may or may not have been killed at Sandy Hook.

So has the media ushered in a new age of fake news? Nonsense. In the sense in which Trump means it, news has always been fake. But because it cannot but be fake, the term will eventually go the way of Liberty fries and every second word being “man”. Every facon de parler has a best-before date. The truly cool dude doesn’t get caught up in these fleeting fads.

 

 

IT WAS ALL FAKE!

I knew it was bound to happen, but I was floored by the speed with which it did. Even before the last of the boys and their coach emerged safely from the cave – indeed even before the rescue operation got underway – there were already posts about the whole thing being, not unlike Sandy Hook, a complete sham.

What had happened – and as with the moon landing I’m sure the bloggers had incontrovertible proof of this – was that some Hollywood producer thought a story about some kids and a couple of adults having to be rescued mission-impossible-like in a race against time because of the water rising in a no-way-out cave, would be a surefire box office hit. But what would seal the deal would be if it could purport to be “based on a true story.” So a pre-production team, let’s call it, was put together and set to task staging the true story, while the ironically labeled real production team went to work on the movie about it.

This explains two things. First, it explains why the story had such a happy ending. Another true story, A Perfect Storm, but in which everyone dies, was a complete disaster at the box office. And second, it explains why at least one person had to die – and one did – so there’d be the requisite pathos linked to his requisite heroism.

What it doesn’t explain is why 1) Thailand instead of Kentucky, why 2) they-all-look-alike-to-us Thai kids instead of blond blue-eyed American teenagers, each with his own endearing trademark quirks, and why 3) all boys instead of a few girls so there could be some sexual tension as they considered what to do with their final hours of life. The beads of sweat from the humidity in the cave would have provided a perfect visual for this.

Perhaps there could have been some additional sexual tension between one of the teenagers – I think this should be her first role, so as not to undermine her virginity – and her much older coach. Either of George Clooney or Brad Pitt would do. If they had sex, do either of them now regret it? And if they didn’t, I think he should be relieved and she not.

So why none of this? Because first you’d have to entice a dozen or so guileless American teenagers – all of whom have real-world helicopter parents, remember – plus a couple of unsuspecting chaperones, into a one-way-out cave, then flood that one way out, and then hope like hell that nothing in the plan your mission-impossible scriptwriters and technicians have concocted goes amiss. Plus you’d have to sacrifice an American Navy Seal instead of that much more expendable Thai one. And you’d have to insure the whole operation to the hilt.

So the project had to be either scrapped entirely or, as turned out to be the case, downgraded to the one we were following for those seventeen days.

Okay so that’s one scenario making its rounds of the blogosphere. But the more plausible one that’s also been circulating is that it was the Thai government itself, or perhaps just the local authorities, who decided they needed something to attract foreign tourists away from the more popular coast up to the less attractive north of the country. And, though I’ve yet to hear it from him, I’m sure Tony Hall will put the entire affair on either Mossad, American neocons, or more likely something involving both.

But what’s certain is this. Whatever it may be, the truth is out there. And the truth is never what it appears. How dull would it be if it were?!

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS AND THE BROMIDE

The recent spat – actually it’s turning into a spate of spats – between Donald Trump and the mainstream media, has resurrected a query I’ve had for decades. What exactly justifies freedom of the press?

The standard bromide, recall, is that democracy presupposes, and so requires, an informed electorate. But surely that, in turn, presupposes that the press is informing us? Trump’s complaint is that they’re mis-informing us. He calls this ‘fake news’. By this, of course, he means news he’d rather we not hear. But let’s put Trump aside. What about news that really is fake? Should the press be free to just make shit up?

Perhaps. But if so, that freedom can’t be justified by the bromide. Rather it’ll have to come under freedom of expression. What recommends freedom of expression to us isn’t that it aims at truth. Rather it’s that it’s cathartic for the speaker. It’s that I need to beak off about country and western music and haggis. But that doesn’t give me a right to invite myself to your dinner table so I have someone to beak off to. Freedom of the press, by contrast, is taken to entitle a reporter to access whatever might be going on that may be of legitimate public interest. The public, we’re told, has a right to know … fill in the blank.

There’s some disagreement, even among champions of press freedom, about how liberally that blank can be filled in. The public has a right to know who some politician is handing out public contracts to, but – or at least so say I – it doesn’t have a right to know who he’s cheating on his wife with. So let’s confine ourselves to what the electorate does have a right to know because it does have a need to know.

Okay. But to know something is to believe the truth about it. One can believe something that’s false, and one can know that something is false, but one can’t know something that’s false. As Plato pointed out in the Theaetetus, knowledge is justified true belief. So, in short, the freedom to report a falsehood cannot be justified by the bromide.

The counter-argument – and it’s a good one – is that truth doesn’t wear itself on its sleeve. So we need divergent voices, some to say this, others to say that, in the hope that eventually the one will prove false and the other true. This was John Stuart Mill’s argument. MSNBC will report the claims of global warming asserters, and Fox News will report the counterclaims of global warming deniers. Seems reasonable enough. But what guarantees that the truth will emerge? Or even that a consensus will emerge, be it true or false?

So each voice is tempted – and sometimes it succeeds – to silence the other voice. Just as in some schools a teacher can’t teach creationism in her science class, in some jurisdictions, no, the press can’t conjecture that the Holocaust might be a Zionist myth. In Turkey it’s a criminal offense to assert the Armenian Genocide, while in France it’s a criminal offense to deny it. (This is why Turkish membership in the EU just ain’t gonna happen any time soon.)

Under most jurisdictions, any report, be it true or false, that’s likely to incite violent, can be censored. Truth has nothing to do with it. And whether it rationally should incite violent has less to do with it still. For example, Holocaust denial is just a “So-what?” But not unlike the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in Butler (1992) regarding pornography – where the court ruled that the mere suggestion of justified inequality is actionable under the Charter of Rights and Freedom’s section 1 override clause – many courts in the West have ruled likewise with respect to Holocaust denial.

Note that these courts did not rule that Holocaust denial is false. That line of argument was rejected by the Supreme Court when it threw out what was, until it’s ruling in Zundel (1992), s. 181 of the Criminal Code, Canada’s false information law. So what’s actionable is not, as the bromide would have it, misinformation, but rather a threat to social peace. Or in some cases, just a threat to social compleasance.

As a good Hobbesian I’m in no position to oppose, at least in principle, governmental interference with threats to social compleasance. (I just wish it would ban country and western music and haggis.) But in acknowledging that there are grounds for censorship other than the bromide, I’m not saying the bromide can’t be a stand-alone justification for freedom of the press. I’m just insisting that where it stands alone, it has to stand on its own two feet. A reporter or interviewer who almost invariably gets it wrong – either intentionally or because she’s just too stupid to listen carefully – is not entitled to a press pass.

Ideally the press should regulate itself, as do many if not most other professions. But it’s loath to do so for fear of being accused of being in some partisan pocket. But that doesn’t mean those of us being reported on need honour an incompetent reporter’s press pass. If a politician declines an interview with an ‘unfriendly’ interviewer, he’ll be accused of censoring the press. And in some cases rightly accused. But if he can show – and often enough he can show – that a particular interviewer – usually at the editing stage – is incompetent, then he has every right to refuse her access.

I’ve given a number of public talks in the small city in which I live and teach. Small town newspapers will report on anything, including some obscure philosophy professor talking about First Century supersessionism to a group of thirty senior citizens. It’s not that our local reporter doesn’t always get it completely right. It’s that she invariably gets it completely wrong. So now I don’t do interviews. My view is that if someone wants to misrepresent me, she doesn’t need, nor is she entitled to, my cooperation.

Yes, this is a personal pet peeve. But I’ve done a little casting about and I’ve discovered that this kind of incompetence is not confined to the small town newspaper. It’s pervasive all the way up. The CBC can’t tell the difference between a ban and a boycott. During the withdrawal of pro-Serbian forces from Bosnia it captioned its pictures of these soldiers wearing balaclavas as them “hiding their shame”.

I’m not advocating any kind of centralized licensing of reporters. That would put us back behind the Iron Curtain. But I am advocating a non-governmental watchdog agency that will out those who, either intentionally or from stupidity, misreport what they’re charged with reporting, and drive them out of the profession. Right now misreporting is treated with a shrug and an “Oh well …” Do we say that about an engineer or a cruise ship captain? Far more lives hang on accurate reporting than on accurate piloting. Both the sea and the air are far more forgiving.

Politicians are expected to deceive. The press is expected to be a corrective to that deception. They are not to be complicit in that deception. Nor are they to make up shit on their own. Donald Trump makes up shit. But so do the mainstream media.

I fully understand that networks have to sell air time. So I accept that even the once-prestigious BBC has had to succumb to infotainment. So by all means give us the 106-year-old great great granny in Blackpool who can still do the Twist. But when it comes to the news – even if you’re selecting what counts as news – give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And if you don’t know the truth – by which I mean if you don’t know that you know the truth – then shut the fuck up!