Since at least Donald Trump’s election, our media have been in the grip of an astonishing, self-inflicted crisis. Despite Trump’s constant railing against the American press, there is no greater enemy of the American media than the American media. They did this to themselves.
We are in the midst of an epidemic of fake news. There is no better word to describe it than “epidemic,” insofar as it fits the epidemiological model from the Centers for Disease Control: this phenomenon occurs when “an agent and susceptible hosts are present in adequate numbers, and the agent can be effectively conveyed from a source to the susceptible hosts.”
The “agent” in this case is hysteria over Trump’s presidency, and the “susceptible hosts” are a slipshod, reckless, and breathtakingly gullible media class that spread the hysteria around like—well, like a virus.
It is difficult to adequately sum up the breadth of this epidemic, chiefly because it keeps growing: day after day, even hour after hour, the media continue to broadcast, spread, promulgate, publicize, and promote fake news on an industrial scale. It has become a regular part of our news cycle, not distinct from or extraneous to it but a part of it, embedded within the news apparatus as a spoke is embedded in a bicycle wheel.
Whenever you turn on a news station, visit a news website, or check in on a journalist or media personality on Twitter or Facebook, there is an excellent chance you will be exposed to fake news. It is rapidly becoming an accepted part of the way the American media are run.
How we will get out of this is anyone’s guess. We might not get out of it, not so long as Trump is president of these United States. We may be up for four—maybe eight!—long years of authentic fake news media hysteria. It is worth cataloging at least a small sampling of the hysteria so far. Only when we fully assess the extent of the media’s collapse into ignominious ineptitude can we truly begin to reckon with it.
Since Trump’s election, here’s just a small sampling of fake news that our media and our journalist class have propagated.
Early November: Spike in Transgender Suicide Rates
After Trump’s electoral victory on November 8, rumors began circulating that multiple transgender teenagers had killed themselves in response to the election results. There was no basis to these rumors. Nobody was able to confirm them at the time, and nobody has been able to confirm in the three months since Trump was elected.
Nevertheless, the claim spread far and wide: Guardian writer and editor-at-large of Out Zach Stafford tweeted the rumor, which was retweeted more than 13,000 times before he deleted it. He later posted a tweet explaining why he deleted his original viral tweet; his explanatory tweet was shared a total of seven times. Meanwhile, PinkNews writer Dominic Preston wrote a report on the rumors, which garnered more than 12,000 shares on Facebook.
At Mic, Matthew Rodriguez wrote about the unsubstantiated allegations. His article was shared more than 55,000 times on Facebook. Urban legend debunker website Snopes wrote a report on the rumors and listed them as “unconfirmed” (rather than “false”). Snopes’s sources were two Facebook posts, since deleted, that offered no helpful information regarding the location, identity, or circumstances of any of the suicides. The Snopes report was shared 19,000 times.
At Reason, writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown searched multiple online databases to try to determine the identities or even the existence of the allegedly suicidal youth. She found nothing. As she put it: “[T]eenagers in 2016 don’t just die without anyone who knew them so much as mentioning their death online for days afterward.”
She is right. Just the same, the stories hyping this idea garnered at least nearly 100,000 shares on Facebook alone, contributing to the fear and hysteria surrounding Trump’s win.
November 22: The Tri-State Election Hacking Conspiracy Theory
On November 22, Gabriel Sherman posted a bombshell report at New York Magazine claiming that “a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers” were demanding a recount in three separate states because of “persuasive evidence that [the election] results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked.” The evidence? Apparently, “in Wisconsin, Clinton received 7 percent fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic-voting machines compared with counties that used optical scanners and paper ballots.”
The story went stratospherically viral. It was shared more than 145,000 times on Facebook alone. Sherman shared it on his Twitter feed several times, and people retweeted his links to the story nearly 9,000 times. Politico’s Eric Geller shared the story on Twitter as well. His tweet was retweeted just under 8,000 times. Dustin Volz from Reuters shared the link; he was retweeted nearly 2,000 times. MSNBC’s Joy Reid shared the story and was retweeted more than 4,000 times. New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman also shared the story and was retweeted about 1,600 times.
It wasn’t until the next day, November 23, that someone threw a little water on the fire. At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver explained that it was “demographics, not hacking” that explained the curious voting numbers. “Anyone making allegations of a possible massive electoral hack should provide proof,” he wrote, “and we can’t find any.” Additionally, Silver pointed out that the New York Magazine article had misrepresented the argument of one of the computer scientists in question.
At that point, however, the damage had already been done: Sherman, along with his credulous tweeters and retweeters, had done a great deal to delegitimize the election results. Nobody was even listening to Silver, anyway: his post was shared a mere 380 times on Facebook, or about one-quarter of 1 percent as much as Sherman’s. This is how fake news works: the fake story always goes viral, while nobody reads or even hears about the correction.
December 1: The 27-Cent Foreclosure
At Politico on December 1, Lorraine Woellert published a shocking essay claiming that Trump’s pick for secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin, had overseen a company that “foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman after a 27-cent payment error.” According to Woellert: “After confusion over insurance coverage, a OneWest subsidiary sent [Ossie] Lofton a bill for $423.30. She sent a check for $423. The bank sent another bill, for 30 cents. Lofton, 90, sent a check for three cents. In November 2014, the bank foreclosed.”
The story received widespread coverage, being shared nearly 17,000 times on Facebook. The New York Times’s Steven Rattner shared it on Twitter (1,300 retweets), as did NBC News’s Brad Jaffy (1,200 retweets), the AP’s David Beard (1,900 retweets) and many others.
The problem? The central scandalous claims of Woellert’s article were simply untrue. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ted Frank pointed out, the woman in question was never foreclosed on, and never lost her home. Moreover, “It wasn’t Mnuchin’s bank that brought the suit.”
Politico eventually corrected these serious and glaring errors. But the damage was done: the story had been repeated by numerous media outlets including Huffington Post (shared 25,000 times on Facebook), the New York Post, Vanity Fair, and many others.
January 20: Nancy Sinatra’s Complaints about the Inaugural Ball
On the day of Trump’s inauguration, CNN claimed Nancy Sinatra was “not happy” with the fact that the president and first lady’s inaugural dance would be to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” The problem? Nancy Sinatra had never said any such thing. CNN later updated the article without explaining the mistake they had made.
January 20: The Nonexistent Climate Change Website ‘Purge’
Also on the day of the inauguration, New York Times writer Coral Davenport published an article on the Times’s website whose headline claimed that the Trump administration had “purged” any “climate change references” from the White House website. Within the article, Davenport acknowledged that the “purge” (or what she also called “online deletions”) was “not unexpected” but rather part of a routine turnover of digital authority between administrations.
To call this action a “purge” was thus at the height of intellectual dishonesty: Davenport was styling the whole thing as a kind of digital book-burn rather than a routine part of American government. But of course that was almost surely the point. The inflammatory headline was probably the only thing that most people read of the article, doubtlessly leading many readers (the article was shared nearly 50,000 times on Facebook) to believe something that simply wasn’t true.
January 20: The Great MLK Jr. Bust Controversy
On January 20, Time reporter Zeke Miller wrote that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the White House. This caused a flurry of controversy on social media until Miller issued a correction. As Time put it, Miller had apparently not even asked anyone in the White House if the bust had been removed. He simply assumed it had been because “he had looked for it and had not seen it.”
January 20: Betsy DeVos, Grizzly Fighter
During her confirmation hearing, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos was asked whether schools should be able to have guns on their campuses. As NBC News reported, DeVos felt it was “best left to locales and states to decide.” She pointed out that one school in Wyoming had a fence around it to protect the students from wildlife. “I would imagine,” she said, “that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
This was an utterly noncontroversial stance to take. DeVos was simply pointing out that different states and localities have different needs, and attempting to mandate a nationwide one-size-fits-all policy for every American school is imprudent.
How did the media run with it? By lying through their teeth. “Betsy DeVos Says Guns Should Be Allowed in Schools. They Might Be Needed to Shoot Grizzlies” (Slate). “Betsy DeVos: Schools May Need Guns to Fight Off Bears” (The Daily Beast). “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies” (CNN). “Betsy DeVos says guns in schools may be necessary to protect students from grizzly bears” (ThinkProgress.) “Betsy DeVos says guns shouldn’t be banned in schools … because grizzly bears” (Vox). “Betsy DeVos tells Senate hearing she supports guns in schools because of grizzly bears” (The Week). “Trump’s Education Pick Cites ‘Potential Grizzlies’ As A Reason To Have Guns In Schools” (BuzzFeed).
The intellectual dishonesty at play here is hard to overstate. DeVos never said or even intimated that every American school or even very many of them might need to shoot bears. She merely used one school as an example of the necessity of federalism and as-local-as-possible control of the education system.
Rather than report accurately on her stance, these media outlets created a fake news event to smear a reasonable woman’s perfectly reasonable opinion.
January 26: The ‘Resignations’ At the State Department
On January 26, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin published what seemed to be a bombshell report declaring that “the State Department’s entire senior management team just resigned.” This resignation, according to Rogin, was “part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.” These resignations happened “suddenly” and “unexpectedly.” He styled it as a shocking shake-up of administrative protocol in the State Department, a kind of ad-hoc protest of the Trump administration.
The story immediately went sky-high viral. It was shared nearly 60,000 times on Facebook. Rogin himself tweeted the story out and was retweeted a staggering 11,000 times. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum had it retweeted nearly 2,000 times; journalists and writers from Wired, The Guardian, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, ABC, Foreign Policy, and other publications tweeted the story out in shock.
There was just one problem: the story was more a load of bunk. As Vox pointed out, the headline of the piece was highly misleading: “the word ‘management’ strongly implied that all of America’s top diplomats were resigning, which was not the case.” (The Post later changed the word “management” to “administrative” without noting the change, although it left the “management” language intact in the article itself).
More importantly, Mark Toner, the acting spokesman for the State Department, put out a press release noting that “As is standard with every transition, the outgoing administration, in coordination with the incoming one, requested all politically appointed officers submit letters of resignation.” According to CNN, the officials were actually asked to leave by the Trump administration rather than stay on for the customary transitional few months. The entire premise of Rogin’s article was essentially nonexistent.
As always, the correction received far less attention than the fake news itself: Vox’s article, for instance, was shared around 9,500 times on Facebook, less than one-sixth the rate of Rogin’s piece. To this day, Rogin’s piece remains uncorrected regarding its faulty presumptions.
January 27: The Photoshopped Hands Affair
On January 27, Observer writer Dana Schwartz tweeted out a screenshot of Trump that, in her eyes, proved President Trump had “photoshopped his hands bigger” for a White House photograph. Her tweet immediately went viral, being shared upwards of 25,000 times. A similar tweet by Disney animator Joaquin Baldwin was shared nearly 9,000 times as well.
The conspiracy theory was eventually debunked, but not before it had been shared thousands upon thousands of times. Meanwhile, Schwartz tweeted that she did “not know for sure whether or not the hands were shopped.” Her correction tweet was shared a grand total of…11 times.
January 29: The Reuters Account Hoax
Following the Quebec City mosque massacre, the Daily Beast published a story that purported to identify the two shooters who had perpetrated the crime. The problem? The story’s source was a Reuters parody account on Twitter. Incredibly, nobody at the Daily Beast thought to check the source to any appreciable degree.
January 31: The White House-SCOTUS Twitter Mistake
Leading up to Trump announcing his first Supreme Court nomination, CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny announced that the White House was “setting up [the] Supreme Court announcement as a prime-time contest.” He pointed to a pair of recently created “identical Twitter pages” for a theoretical justices Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman, the two likeliest nominees for the court vacancy.
Zeleny’s sneering tweet—clearly meant to cast the Trump administration in an unflattering, circus-like light—was shared more than 1,100 times on Twitter. About 30 minutes later, however, he tweeted: “The Twitter accounts…were not set up by the White House, I’ve been told.” As always, the admission of mistake was shared far less than the original fake news: Zeleny’s correction was retweeted a paltry 159 times.
January 31: The Big Travel Ban Lie
On January 31, a Fox affiliate station out of Detroit reported that “A local business owner who flew to Iraq to bring his mother back home to the US for medical treatment said she was blocked from returning home under President Trump’s ban on immigration and travel from seven predominately Muslim nations. He said that while she was waiting for approval to fly home, she died from an illness.”
Like most other sensational news incidents, this one took off, big-time: it was shared countless times on Facebook, not just from the original article itself (123,000 shares) but via secondary reporting outlets such as the Huffington Post (nearly 9,000 shares). Credulous reporters and media personalities shared the story on Twitter to the tune of thousands and thousands of retweets, including: Christopher Hooks, Gideon Resnick, Daniel Dale, Sarah Silverman, Blake Hounshell, Brian Beutler, Garance Franke-Ruta, Keith Olbermann (he got 3,600 retweets on that one!), Matthew Yglesias, and Farhad Manjoo.
The story spread so far because it gratified all the biases of the liberal media elite: it proved that Trump’s “Muslim ban” was an evil, racist Hitler-esque mother-killer of an executive order.
There was just one problem: it was a lie. The man had lied about when his mother died. The Fox affiliate hadn’t bothered to do the necessary research to confirm or disprove the man’s account. The news station quietly corrected the story after giving rise to such wild, industrial-scale hysteria.
February 1: POTUS Threatens to Invade Mexico
On February 1, Yahoo News published an Associated Press report about a phone call President Trump shared with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto. The report strongly implied that President Trump was considering “send[ing] U.S. troops” to curb Mexico’s “bad hombre” problem, although it acknowledged that the Mexican government disagreed with that interpretation. The White House later re-affirmed that Trump did not have any plan to “invade Mexico.”
Nevertheless, Jon Passantino, the deputy news director of BuzzFeed, shared this story on Twitter with the exclamation “WOW.” He was retweeted 2,700 times. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, also shared the story, declaring: “I’m sorry, did our president just threaten to invade Mexico today??” Favreau was retweeted more than 8,000 times.
Meanwhile, the Yahoo News AP post was shared more than 17,000 times on Facebook; Time’s post of the misleading report was shared more than 66,000 times; ABC News posted the story and it was shared more than 20,000 times. On Twitter, the report—with the false implication that Trump’s comment was serious—was shared by media types such as ThinkProgress’s Judd Legum, the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher, Vox’s Matt Yglesias, Politico’s Shane Goldmacher, comedian Michael Ian Black, and many others.
February 2: Easing the Russian Sanctions
Last week, NBC News national correspondent Peter Alexander tweeted out the following: “BREAKING: US Treasury Dept easing Obama admin sanctions to allow companies to do transactions with Russia’s FSB, successor org to KGB.” His tweet immediately went viral, as it implied that the Trump administration was cozying up to Russia.
A short while later, Alexander posted another tweet: “Source familiar [with] sanctions says it’s a technical fix, planned under Obama, to avoid unintended consequences of cybersanctions.” As of this writing, Alexander’s fake news tweet has approximately 6,500 retweets; his clarifying tweet has fewer than 250.
At CNBC, Jacob Pramuk styled the change this way: “Trump administration modifies sanctions against Russian intelligence service.” The article makes it clear that, per Alexander’s source, “the change was a technical fix that was planned under Obama.” Nonetheless, the impetus was placed on the Trump adminsitration. CBS News wrote the story up in the same way. So did the New York Daily News.
In the end, unable to pin this (rather unremarkable) policy tweak on the Trump administration, the media have mostly moved on. As the Chicago Tribune put it, the whole affair was yet again an example of how “in the hyperactive Age of Trump, something that initially appeared to be a major change in policy turned into a nothing-burger.”
February 2: Renaming Black History Month
At the start of February, which is Black History Month in the United States, Trump proclaimed the month “National African American History Month.” Many outlets tried to spin the story in a bizarre way: TMZ claimed that a “senior administration official” said that Trump believed the term “black” to be outdated. “Every U.S. president since 1976 has designated February as Black History Month,” wrote TMZ. BET wrote the same thing.
The problem? It’s just not true. President Obama, for example, declared February “National African American History Month” as well. TMZ quickly updated their piece to fix their embarrassing error.
February 2: The House of Representatives’ Gun Control Measures
On February 2, the Associated Press touched off a political and media firestorm by tweeting: “BREAKING: House votes to roll back Obama rule on background checks for gun ownership.” The AP was retweeted a staggering 12,000 times.
The headlines that followed were legion: “House votes to rescind Obama gun background check rule” (Kyle Cheney, Politico); “House GOP aims to scrap Obama rule on gun background checks” (CNBC); “House scraps background check regulation” (Yahoo News); “House rolls back Obama gun background check rule” (CNN); “House votes to roll back Obama rule on background checks for gun ownership” (Washington Post).
Some headlines were more specific about the actual House vote but no less misleading; “House votes to end rule that prevents people with mental illness from buying guns” (the Independent); “Congress ends background checks for some gun buyers with mental illness” (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette); “House Votes to Overturn Obama Rule Restricting Gun Sales to the Severely Mentally Ill” (NPR).
The hysteria was far-reaching and frenetic. As you might have guessed, all of it was baseless. The House was actually voting to repeal a narrowly tailored rule from the Obama era. This rule mandated that the names of certain individuals who receive Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income and who use a representative to help manage these benefits due to a mental impairment be forwarded to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
If that sounds confusing, it essentially means that if someone who receives SSDI or SSI needs a third party to manage these benefits due to some sort of mental handicap, then—under the Obama rule—they may have been barred from purchasing a firearm. (It is thus incredibly misleading to suggest that the rule applied in some specific way to the “severely mentally ill.”)
As National Review’s Charlie Cooke pointed out, the Obama rule was opposed by the American Association of People With Disabilities; the ACLU; the Arc of the United States; the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network; the Consortium of Citizens With Disabilities; the National Coalition of Mental Health Recovery; and many, many other disability advocacy organizations and networks.
The media hysteria surrounding the repeal of this rule—the wildly misleading and deceitful headlines, the confused outrage over a vote that nobody understood—was a public disservice.
As Cooke wrote: “It is a rare day indeed on which the NRA, the GOP, the ACLU, and America’s mental health groups find themselves in agreement on a question of public policy, but when it happens it should at the very least prompt Americans to ask, ‘Why?’ That so many mainstream outlets tried to cheat them of the opportunity does not bode well for the future.”
Maybe It’s Time to Stop Reading Fake News
Surely more incidents have happened since Trump was elected; doubtlessly there are many more to come. To be sure, some of these incidents are larger and more shameful than others, and some are smaller and more mundane.
But all of them, taken as a group, raise a pressing and important question: why is this happening? Why are our media so regularly and so profoundly debasing and beclowning themselves, lying to the public and sullying our national discourse—sometimes on a daily basis? How has it come to this point?
Perhaps the answer is: “We’ve let it.” The media will not stop behaving in so reckless a manner unless and until we demand they stop.
That being said, there are two possible outcomes to this fake news crisis: our media can get better, or they can get worse. If they get better, we might actually see our press begin to hold the Trump administration (and government in general) genuinely accountable for its many admitted faults. If they refuse to fix these serial problems of gullibility, credulity, outrage, and outright lying, then we will be in for a rough four years, if not more.
No one single person can fix this problem. It has to be a cultural change, a kind of shifting of priorities industry-wide. Journalists, media types, reporters, you have two choices: you can fix these problems, or you can watch your profession go down in flames.
Most of us are hoping devoutly for the former. But not even a month into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, the outlook is dim.
Typos in the names of BBC reporter Anthony Zurcher and Politico’s Lorraine Woellert have been corrected since publication.