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Fake news is getting in the way of finding rational solutions to our problems

Feb 10, 2017

The Michigan Library Association has asked me to talk to their annual convention about “fake news.” I don’t blame them for being especially concerned about it. I’ve always seen librarians as sort of secular high priests of our culture.

They are concerned with assembling and guarding over our storehouses of information. In the pre-internet age, we went to them to find out things and to learn how to find them out ourselves.

Yes, there was fiction in libraries, but fiction openly labeled as such, which was therefore a form of art.

Librarians, like journalists, didn’t recognize alternative facts.

That’s not the world we live in any more. I see things asserted with great confidence on the internet that simply are not true, “supported” by references to other equally untrue things. Those who post this stuff are either propagandists who are actively hostile to the truth, or those who believe in “alternative facts.”

It is as if our currency was flooded with counterfeit money which was hard to distinguish from the real stuff.

This has become a serious issue that is getting in the way of finding rational solutions to our very real problems. It is as if our currency was flooded with counterfeit money which was hard to distinguish from the real stuff.

I have to admit I was a little late to realize how big the problem of fake news had become. I think this has to do with how I was trained.

Journalism is, in essence, a discipline of verification. What journalists are trained to do is to find out information and test it for accuracy, in sort of an everyday use of the scientific method.

You come up with a theory that the state’s roads are dangerously falling apart, and test it by finding reputable experts and data. Even for tabloid-style journalism, we had something called the two-source rule. We didn’t report that Famous Actor X was drunk on the set until we confirmed that with two independent sources.

We also learned how to evaluate material. We knew that something published by the New York Times or the Smithsonian Institution had been held to a very high standard of accuracy. We knew we couldn’t say the same for writing on bathroom walls. Prior to the World Wide Web, virtually all American journalism operated this way.

Watergate is a classic example.

It tore the nation apart for two years, but when it was at last proven that President Nixon had indeed lied and conspired to obstruct justice, even the Republicans in Congress demanded he resign.

What's clear is that we have to do something about this, if we want to preserve civilization, let alone democracy.

Today, I’m not at all confident that would happen. Someone would claim the tapes had been forged by Hillary Clinton. The stage was also set for this by the government’s abandonment 30 years ago of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast media to fairly present both sides of any controversial story.

What’s clear is that we have to do something about this, if we want to preserve civilization, let alone democracy. I know we need much stronger emphasis on teaching critical thinking skills. But I also think journalism has to do a better job at policing itself.

A few years ago, Carl Bernstein wrote that “the fact that trash will always find an outlet does not mean that we should always furnish it with an outlet.”

That may not be enough to solve the problem, but it’s a good place to start.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.