The furor over “fake news” on Facebook supposedly tipping the election for Donald Trump was only going to end one way. I just didn’t expect it to get there so quickly.
The “fake news” hysteria came, after all, from the same people who previously brought us “fake but accurate.” If you don’t remember that phrase, here’s a refresher. In the 2004 election, CBS’s Dan Rather tried to pass off forged Texas Air National Guard memos in an attempt to impugn the military record of George W. Bush. It was fake news, and it was specifically designed to tilt the results of a presidential election.
Fortunately, intrepid bloggers debunked it within 24 hours, leading a peevish CBS News executive to scoff at the idea that they could be taught their own business by “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas.” The moment that really crystallized this mainstream media arrogance was when the New York Times dubbed the memos “fake but accurate.” The upshot? Fake news is really bad, unless it’s about someone we hate.
The media never learned any lessons from this debacle. They used the same standards in defending Rolling Stone when it published the University of Virginia rape hoax, and they’re still clinging to a revisionist history of the Rathergate scandal in which Rather and his producers were the victims.
So it’s no surprise that, less than two months after the Left went after Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook based on the dubious assumption that social media tilted the election, we see one of these same media outlets publishing “uncorroborated” claims about Donald Trump, and some people defending it—or at least distancing themselves from it very faintly.
Last week, BuzzFeed published a dossier of sensational “opposition research” on Trump that had been offered to numerous other reporters, who passed on it because they couldn’t verify anything in it. BuzzFeed’s excuse? They published it “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”
Clickhole—an offshoot of The Onion designed specifically to lampoon sites like BuzzFeed—published the best rejoinder: a report about millions of BuzzFeed readers traveling to Russia and honing their investigative techniques in order to do their “due diligence” in determining whether the report was true or not. In other words: doing all the things reporters are supposed to do before they publish an allegation.
What is notable is the absence of the kind of outrage against BuzzFeed that we saw against Facebook, including in this overview by Slate’s Will Oremus.
Whether BuzzFeed was right or wrong to publish the memo—and whether it should have presented it with more critical commentary or context—is a question that will be debated in future classes on journalism ethics. For now I’ll just point out that, while [BuzzFeed editor Ben] Smith has at times proudly positioned BuzzFeed as a member of the ‘mainstream media,’ he was acting here in a different tradition. It was the tradition of Internet media and blogs—one pioneered by Matt Drudge, who famously broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal by reporting that Newsweek was sitting on it, and by the now-defunct Gawker. It’s a tradition in which the notion of media as privileged gatekeeper of information is viewed with disdain. It’s one in which sensitive and embarrassing information about public figures is readily disclosed, ostensibly out of respect for the public’s intelligence and right to know. It’s also one in which publishers are rewarded for publishing such bombshells, not with prestigious industry award, but with notoriety, page views, and social media shares.
Oremus comes off somewhat agnostic on this question, merely warning at the end that BuzzFeed’s approach might “backfire.” But it makes for an interesting contrast to the outrage against Facebook for merely allowing its users to share dubious news stories, for which crime it has to bring back the old mainstream media “fact-checkers” to serve as gatekeepers for all of Facebook’s millions of users. Yet when BuzzFeed promotes news that may very well be fake—well, hey, you don’t expect them to be like old media gatekeepers, do you?
Actually, I do expect them to be like the old media gatekeepers—exactly like them, like the actual reality of their practice, not their idealized self-image. We expect them to have the same attitude as Rather and the New York Times all those years ago. Fake news is really bad, unless it’s about someone we hate.
I’m absolutely certain, based on the experience of the past year, that the same holds true for a lot of Trump’s supporters: they think fake news is bad, except when it’s about someone they hate. So I’m going to resist the temptation to take sides with Trump because the people who oppose him are so completely despicable. But there are moments when I sure can understand that temptation.