News, Fake News, Very Fake News: A Primer
The motor of fake news is not inaccuracy. It's malice.
I had an insight into this important truth a couple weeks back when I was at a swank New York club for an evening event. The establishment in question is overwhelmingly conventional, i.e., leftish in that smug "We're-all-beautiful-people-who-are-you?" sort of way that publications like The New Yorker and the New York Times, along with such media outlets as CNN and MSNBC, exude like the cloying aroma of paperwhites.
I ran into an acquaintance, a female journalist I hadn't seen in years. I knew that her politics were echt conventional in the above sense, but I had also found her an amusing and lively person. We were chatting with a couple of other people about this and that when someone she knew from the Times joined in. I then overheard him explain to her that she had to be careful about what she posted on Facebook, Twitter, etc., because anything too explicitly anti-Trump could be used against her when that glorious day came and "they" -- the conventional fraternity of groupthink scribblers -- finally took down that horrible, despicable man.
"We've got dozens of people working on it all the time," he explained, adding that it was only a matter of time before they got the goods on Trump and destroyed him.
There in a nutshell, I thought, is the existential imperative that has been so gloriously productive of fake news and its exacerbated allotrope, first delineated by Donald Trump in his famous media-bashing presser on February 16, "very fake news."
News is the reporting of facts. Someone says "this happened on such-and-such a day in such-and-such a way," and independent, publicly available sources confirm that, yes, what was alleged happened at just that time and in just that fashion.
Fake news insinuates a skein of innuendo and a boatload of shared presumption floating on an ocean of fantastic desire into the mix. Repetition, like Rumor in the Iliad, whips this unstable congeries into an intoxicating frenzy:
" Trump's transition is in chaos, pass it on."
"Trump is a puppet of Putin, pass it on."
"Trump is Steve Bannon's puppet, pass it on."
"Trump, like Steve Bannon, is a white supremacist/racist/homophobic/woman-hating xenophobe, really pass that one along."
Every one of these fantasies is not only untrue, but ostentatiously, extravagantly untrue. Liberals of sound mind understand this.
Thus the British journalist Piers Morgan, than whom a more reliably left-liberal figure is hard to imagine, noted to Tucker Carlson that the Left's hatred of Donald Trump has blinded them to reality. Godwin's law, which states that the longer an online exchange proceeds, the more likely it is that Adolf Hitler will be dragged into the conversation, has been exacerbated in the case of Trump. It is true that every Republican since at least Ronald Reagan has been compared to Hitler, but in the case of Trump the comparisons have taken on an especially surreal tone. This, too, is something that Piers Morgan, in another interview with Tucker Carlson, noted with a sense of exasperated amazement.
In fact, Donald Trump's first 30-odd days have been extraordinarily successful. That's the news.
As Charlotte Allen noted in a column for USA Today, to date Trump has been even more successful than was Reagan in beginning to fulfill his campaign promises. All of his cabinet nominees have been confirmed (Trump's nominee for Labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew his name from consideration after it became clear that the two differed on immigration). He has moved quickly to get the ball rolling on tax cuts, repealing Obamacare, strengthening the military, enforcing the country's immigration laws, and cutting the jungle of business-sapping regulation down to size. He has, as Allen observes, "already taken steps ... to fulfill at least a dozen of his campaign promises."
But listen to the New York Times or any of the other conventional (see above) "news" sources, and you would think Trump is a malevolent and incompetent monster who, despite his supreme incompetence, is somehow tipping the country into moral Armageddon.
Harken, for example, to Andrew Sullivan, who in a column for New York called "The Madness of King Donald," tells his readers:
This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional.
There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.
Hmm. The dogs are barking, but the caravan keeps moving along, Andrew.
So there's news (well, there was news) and then there is fake news. Here's one bit of news: the stock market has risen by nearly 3000 points since Trump's election.
Here's another bit of news: while Trump's personal popularity remains low for a new president, the mood of the country as a whole has exploded with optimism, whereas towards the end of Barack Obama's reign, 70% of those polled said that the country was moving in the wrong direction.
But what about "Very Fake News"? One could investigate the Left's truly bizarre Russian fantasy to get a glimpse of the phantasmagoric nature of very fake news. Memo to CNN: Donald Trump was correct when he said the whole Russian gambit was "a ruse." One of my favorite lines from the English essayist William Hazlitt is: "Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power." It is ironical, to say the least, to find the very same people who decried Republicans for "red scare" tactics and the like now turn around and pretend that a man who is actively rebuilding America's military, encouraging native energy production, and taking steps to unleash economic growth is somehow playing into Vladimir Putin's hands.
That whole Russia narrative is deserving of the epithets served up by Andrew Sullivan: "deranged," "delusional," and smack dab in the middle of an alternate universe.
But Very Fake News is really more an attitude, an exfoliation of a moral atmosphere, than a putatively factual account. An exquisite specimen of the genre was vouchsafed us by the New York Times back in July, when the anti-George W. Bush historian Bruce Bartlett revealed that the Republican Party had become ... the "party of hate."
How did that terrible thing happen? Apparently, by a process akin to alchemical transformation.
Bartlett knows that the Democratic Party was the party of slavery in the 19th century, the party of segregation and Jim Crow in the early 20th century, and the party of identity politics, i.e., neo-segregation, now. He also knows, though he doesn't come right out and say, that the Civil Rights Act was orchestrated overwhelmingly by Republicans over concerted Democratic opposition.
But then afterwards, somehow, Republicans became Democrats, or at least they became Southerners, i.e. the epitome of all that is racist, intolerant, homophobic, etc.
Note the logic: the GOP ushered in the Civil Rights and and the Voting Rights Act, but -- pay attention now:
... in the process, Republicans absorbed the traditions of racism, bigotry, populism and rule by plutocrats called “Bourbons” that defined the politics of the South after the Civil War. They also inherited an obsession with self-defense, allegiance to evangelical Christianity, chauvinism, xenophobia and other cultural characteristics long cultivated in the South.
What do you think of that?
You should, I submit, think badly of it, on logical, moral, and historical grounds. Whence this alleged "process" of "absorption"? Is there any justification, any, for the deployment of those negative epithets racism, bigotry, populism? (And how did that last one sneak in?)
Bartlett's dog's breakfast of accusation is nothing more than a bagful of insults, utterly without content. He continues the disreputable campaign in the next paragraph:
The Southern states have long followed what are now doctrinaire Republican policies: minuscule taxes, no unions, aggressive pro-business policies, privatized public services and strong police forces that kept minorities in their place. Yet the South is and always has been our poorest region and shows no sign of converging with the Northeast, which has long followed progressive policies opposite those in the South and been the wealthiest region as well.
Personally, I am in favor of "minuscule taxes," but, alas, the Republicans don't favor them, at least not the ones writing the laws. Unions? There's a place for unions in the private sector. But public sector unions, as even FDR understood, are a prescription for corruption. Privatized public services? Why not? What's better: FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service? Then there's "pro-business policies." I like them, the more "aggressive" the better. Successful businesses make money, ergo they employ people and add to the country's material well-being. It is true that Democrats favor the opposite strategy, but is that something to brag about?
As for the police, "strong police forces," as Heather Mac Donald has shown (and Donald Trump has echoed) are valuable not only because they keep crime low but because they protect minorities, especially those in inner cities.
As for the relative prosperity of North and South, Bartlett is stuck in the 1850s. For more than a decade now, the South has outpaced the North in economic growth if not, thank God, in "progressive," i.e., leftwing, anti-prosperity attitudes.
Bartlett's scurrilous essay is one of those productions that, merely contemptible in itself, is nonetheless worth noting as a symptom. It exemplifies, even as it contributes to, that surreal atmosphere of groundless accusation and intimidation that has made the conventional (again, see above) reception of Donald Trump such a carnival of malignancy and groundless apocalyptic self-dramatization.
Steve Bannon was right to brand the media the "opposition party."
To an extent marvelous to behold, it has become a factory for the production of fake and very fake news: not just the dissemination of lies, half-truths, and unsubstantiated fantasies, but also the perpetuation of that echo-chamber in which political paranoia feeds upon the bitter lees of its impotent irrelevance. As I say, that old adage about the barking dogs and the moving caravan is deeply pertinent to our situation. If Donald Trump is at all successful in his efforts to help the country, we will look back on the behavior of the media and its enablers circa 2017 with a mixture of horror and contempt.