The froth of fake news: The president, the press and the viewing public share the blame

This article was originally published in the Deseret News.

“Fake” is a relatively new term in the English language and has its origin in the world of crime. In 1819, James Hardy Vaux authored a dictionary of criminal slang, including the term “fake.” Vaux noted that “to fake any person or place” signifies “to rob them.”

“Fake news” robs the American people of the truth.

A partisan press has been with America since its founding. President Washington almost declined to accept a second term in office, because the press was becoming too partisan and divisive, often descending into vicious personal attacks. Today, we have taken it a step further and have embraced “fake news.” The president, the press and the people, consumers of the media product, are complicit in this crime-like con game.

President Trump proudly takes credit for giving life to the term “fake news,” which he uses almost daily in his tweets.

On Aug. 16, he tweeted, “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY. It is very bad for our Great Country. … BUT WE ARE WINNING.” On the same day, the president added, “The fact is that the Press is FREE to write and say anything it wants, but much of what it says is FAKE NEWS, pushing a political agenda or just plain trying to hurt people.”

President Trump’s assessment is justified, in some measure. According to a recent Pew Research study, the media attack Trump personally in unprecedented ways. The media cast the president in a negative light twice as often as was the case with his predecessors in both political parties. That same report emphasizes that the media on all sides choose to downplay policy issues, focusing primarily on Trump’s style and personality. For his part, the president revels in battling over personality and not policy — his supporters like him best for his brash style, a style they praise for its authenticity. On the other hand, his opponents openly detest his style, attacking it with alacrity. The bottom line, however, is that the American people are the big losers.

Many Americans are willing in this congame, with the left-leaning media on one side and the president and the right-leaning media on the other. They delight in battling over matters of style, mere froth and not real substance.

This congame is good theater and makes highly paid stars out of media personalities, who represent various viewpoints in ways designed to entertain their viewers or readers. The media have discovered that the viewing public prefers entertainment and fake news. It pays! Interestingly, three of the four most popular media personalities support President Trump, with only one opposing him. These media personalities, and others like them, are not journalists. Defamation laws and journalistic ethics do not bind commentators, because they are entertainers, not journalists. Too many members of the American viewing public gravitate to their preferred commentators to reinforce what they already believe, not to discover the truth. Viewers on all sides relish having their views confirmed. Worse yet, they delight in the vilification of those they disagree with.

In such theater, the president, a master of the art of entertainment, understands that his tweets often dominate the so-called “news” cycle. Those tweets feed the commentary of the highly partisan and well-paid national media; but they are mere froth, designed to draw consumers. Entertainment wins, but the truth and the American people lose. What might be fine in the world of sports is not good for the public dialogue we desperately need in today’s tumultuous world. A partisan press or media can be enlightening, if one listens to all sides in the pursuit of truth. It becomes “fake,” little more than a con game, when it focuses on personality and style rather than substance.

How do we end this con game? The media and the viewing public must demand substance, reclaiming a commitment to the pursuit of truth, an act that requires a good deal of humility and an openness to challenging ideas. In such a world, viewers seeking after the truth would ignore the president’s “entertaining” tweets, which are little more than distracting advertisements for his agenda. The media and ultimately the president would have to follow suit, focusing on what really matters in a troubled world — substance. Americans should disagree regarding policy, in the pursuit of truth, but that disagreement must be over real substance and not the froth of fake news. The best way to do that is to fast-forward any mentions of tweets or style in order to get to real substance, the issues that will determine our nation’s future.

© 2020 by Rodney K. Smith