The ‘Fake News’ Con: A Case Study
The media have found a creative new way to explain away Hillary’s Clinton’s crushing defeat and their own humiliation. They have dubbed the agent of their mutual undoing “fake news” and talk about the phenomenon as though it made real sense.
In an all too typical New York Times opinion piece this week Michael Lynch defines “fake news” as “pure fiction masquerading as truth” and presents it exclusively as a “right wing” phenomenon. Like many of his colleagues, Lynch suggests the Russian government was involved in planting fake news items and believes that such items, regardless of source, may have cost Hillary Clinton the election.
To test Lynch’s thesis, we might profitably select a presumed “fake news” item and follow its course through what the Clintons once called the “communication stream of conspiracy commerce.” In August 2010, the Times identified a news item simple enough and seemingly fake enough, “Obama uses a phony Social Security number,” to makes a useful case study.
Tracking this story, one finds its source not in in Russia, but in Ohio. The person responsible for surfacing the number is a licensed private investigator named Susan Daniel. In 2009, troubled by the drift of the country under Barack Obama, she and fellow investigator Neil Sankey began to plow through proprietary databases and investigate Obama on their own time. What they discovered is that from 1986 on Barack Obama has been using a Social Security number that seemed to originate in Connecticut.
In the August 2010 article -- “In Defining Obama, Misperceptions Stick” -- the Times led with the SSN accusation not to explore it but to dismiss it. They simply presumed this question, like more involved questions about Obama’s faith or family origins, to be “misperceptions” unworthy of exploration.
The major media leave the dirty work of debunking to fact-checking sites, most notoriously Snopes.com. In an analysis that has been updated through 2016, Snopes leads with this accusation, “Barack Obama appropriated the Social Security number of a dead man born in 1890 and used it as his own.” In large red letters Snopes rejects the accusation as “FALSE.”
This approach is classic Snopes. Its editors elaborate this bizarre story about a Frenchman named Jean Paul Ludwig who dies in Hawaii and whose SSN is appropriated by Obama’s grandmother. They then reject this particular story as false -- as Daniel and others had already done -- and ignore the larger truth. That truth, as Snopes admits in the fine print, is that Obama’s SSN, 042-68-4425, is “something of a curiosity.”
Daniel believes that the number is more than a curiosity. She believes the number was stolen. When Obama applied, numbers were assigned based on where the applicant received mail. As Daniel notes, and Snopes grudgingly concedes, numbers starting with 042 were for the exclusive use of those applying from Connecticut. Obama’s half sister Maya, by contrast, has a SSN that starts with 576, as do other Hawaiians her age.
Daniel’s theory got lively play on the outer reaches of the Internet -- “an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information,” according to the Times’ Thomas Friedman -- but could not get past the respectable conservative media firewall surrounding the Obama White House. Bill O'Reilly of Fox News did raise the issue only to dismiss it, arguing that Obama got the number from his father then living in Connecticut. In reality, Obama Sr. never lived in Connecticut and left the United States more than a decade before the number was issued in May 1977.
Snopes took another tack. “The most likely explanation for the discrepancy is a simple clerical or typographical error,” its editors insisted. Certain Danbury, Connecticut zip codes do begin in 068 while those in Hawaii begin with 968 -- one easy keystroke away. In her research, however, Daniel discovered that Obama lived in only three different Hawaii zip codes. In checking with the Danbury Post Office, she discovered that two of the corollary zip codes never existed and the third was issued only in 1992, fifteen years after the number was assigned.
Is it possible to steal a social security number? If one believes what terrorist Bill Ayers wrote in his memoir, Fugitive Days, the answer is definitely yes. While on the lam in the 1970s, he spent many a day “tramping through rural cemeteries” looking for the markers of dead infants whose identities could be easily appropriated. From there it was easy to secure a birth certificate and a social security card. For Ayers and his colleagues, identity theft “became a small industry.”
Obama began using his 068 number in 1986, the year after he moved to Chicago. Did good neighbor Ayers lend him a Connecticut social security number? To me, this seems a more likely explanation than a typographical error. Lacking the resources to probe further, however, I can only speculate.
The Times has no such excuse. Its editors have the resources. They simply choose not to employ them. From Obama’s first days on the national scene, in fact, the Times has shown itself oddly incurious about his past, his very identity for that matter.
In late October 2007, for instance, the Times ran a telling article headlined, “Obama’s Account of New York Years Often Differs From What Others Say.” Given that he was a candidate for president, the Times expected Obama to welcome the chance to reconcile his account in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, with the accounts of those who knew him.
“Yet he declined repeated requests to talk about his New York years, release his Columbia transcript or identify even a single fellow student, co-worker, roommate or friend from those years,” reported the Times’ Janny Scott. For reasons unexplained, she and her editors chose to leave this particular hole in Obama’s life unfilled.
In 2008, Scott took leave from the Times to write the biography of Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham. The book would be published in 2011 under the title, A Singular Woman. Given her extensive research, Scott had the opportunity to fill another hole in Obama’s life, namely the questions surrounding his birth.
She did not. In fact, Scott refused to acknowledge there was even a controversy. She also chose not to comment on Dunham’s whereabouts from the alleged wedding to Barack Obama Sr. in February 1961 to Obama’s birth in August 1961. Not a word, not a photo. As to the birth, Scott provided no details other than what was available on the short form certification of live birth and, again, no photos and no confirming witnesses.
Scott had to be aware that Obama’s oft-told tale about his origins was false. As Obama told the story, his parents shared an “improbable love,” one that endured until his father left for Harvard when Obama was two. This story mattered. Obama had invested enormous political capital in what biographer David Remnick called his “signature appeal: the use of the details of his own life as a reflection of a kind of multicultural ideal.”
Intentionally or not, Scott fictionalized key elements of her book to align with Obama’s narrative. “Eleven months [after the birth],” Scott writes, “the elder Obama was gone.” Gone from where? In truth, Dunham never lived with the elder Obama. No, she showed up in Seattle, baby in tow, weeks after Obama’s birth. That Obama spent the first year of his life in Seattle without his father was common knowledge in the blogosphere by 2009 but even today the major media would write off such a claim as “fake news.” In reality, there was no improbable love, no happy multicultural family, not for two years, not for a moment.
By ignoring many newsworthy stories and falsifying others, the major media have left some hugely significant stories to citizen journalists like myself. Lacking the resources of the Times and the networks, we don’t always get everything right. But as our liberal betters refuse to understand, our own allies are the first to tell us if we get something wrong.
The notion that journalists on the right willfully create “pure fiction” is pure fiction, pure idiocy too.