Why is Fake News Accepted by so Many?

If there is a model of integrity in reporting the news and analyzing troubles ahead it is C.P. Scott, longtime editor (1872-1929) and later owner of the Manchester Guardian.  His counsel in his May 1921 centenary essay was priceless: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred… It is well to be frank, it is even better to be fair.” While pursuing a progressive liberal agenda, his emphasis was always accurate news reporting. 

It is sad that the mainstream U.S. media and many of those involved in intellectual endeavors do not abide by Scott’s maxim. A recent event comprising a publication by BuzzFeed and responses to it indicates a continuing problem.  BuzzFeed, citing two anonymous federal law enforcement officials reported on January 17, 2019 that Robert Mueller had evidence that President Trump told Michael Cohen to lie about discussions of a potential proposed Trump Tower to be built in Moscow.  

On the next day, January 18, 2019, a spokesperson for Mueller repudiated the story: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.” 

Several aspects are interesting.  One is the refusal of BuzzFeed (and CNN and MSNBC) to accept Mueller’s denial. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith stood by its reporting despite the fact that no texts or other documents corroborated the story.  His refusal reflects the reality that in general the mainstream media are more to the left in presenting news or opinions than is the median opinion of U.S. voters.  

Criticism of the left media does not mean that one is adopting the argument frequently voiced by Trump about the assault on him by “Fake News,” or accepting his view of critics as “Enemies of the People”. The C.P. Scott formula should be espoused by news media of the left as well as the right because of concern about bias, the frequent use of misleading information, the fact that headlines of stories don’t always reflect their content or import, and the willingness of journalists to publish and of readers to consume or not challenge Fake News.  Furthermore,  the eagerness to condemn Trump results in the presumption of guilt rather than innocence; in this case the focus is to blame Trump for obstruction of justice, and implicitly call for impeachment of the President.  

There are wider implications: the question of bias in reporting and the lack of diversity in teaching as well as reporting the news. A number of objective studies and surveys have illustrated the bias on the left.  One, published in Politico in October 2016, showed that about 91% of news coverage of candidate Trump was hostile.  

Another factor is realization that technology has changed the nature of journalism. Patience is not one of the outstanding characteristics of the media. The initial, inaccurate, BuzzFeed story immediately caught fire and went “viral”.  Its accuracy was not immediately challenged by much of the media. This is surprising because BuzzFeed, a site founded in 2006 which became a global media company, is regarded by many as an unreliable source. Indeed, its editorial stated “we firmly believe that for a number of issues there are not two sides.” A Pew Research Center report concludes that Buzzfeed is one of the most distrusted news sources in the U.S.  On January 10, 2017 it published the Christopher Steele dossier alleging that the Russian government had been cultivating, supporting, and assisting Trump for years. 

Allegations of this kind are mixed with past activity by Trump, who bought the Miss Universe pageant in 1996, later sold it, but brought it to Moscow in 2013, and was involved in negotiations to build in Moscow a Trump Tower. Trump associates carried on conversations with Russian officials on the issue. Nevertheless, this does not lead to proof of Trump’s guilt in the issue of “collusion” between Trump and Moscow.

The rapid, unthinking acceptance of the BuzzFeed story evokes the memory of the impact of the 23-year-old Orson Welles’ narrative and production of the War of The Worlds, on October 30, 1938, the evening before Halloween.  The program, a modernized version of the story by H. G. Wells, was a fictional report on the Martian invasion of the U.S at Grovers Mills, N.J., a few miles from Princeton.  The fake news broadcast of the invasion, interrupted by piano solos of Debussy and Chopin and other orchestral music, was mistaken by many as a genuine news broadcast and caused panic among listeners.  Welles never clearly explained whether his intention was to create panic in the audience, but he did acknowledge that his Fake News was mistaken for a genuine news broadcast.  His success helped lead to a contract in Hollywood where in 1941 he cowrote and directed Citizen Kane.

The troubling question is why Fake News is accepted by so many.  It can be the sheer repetition of inaccurate information by the media, leading most people to be reluctant to challenge what they have heard or read.  But an underlying problem, not often discussed, remains, the lack of diversity among reporters, and to take the matter further, the lack of diversity in the teaching of public affairs in universities.

Lack of diversity, and consequent bias, in the media is clearly shown by a study of news coverage of the first 100 days of the Trump administration released by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. Coverage was overwhelmingly negative: CNN, 93%, CBS and NBC 91%, the New York Times 87%, the Washington Post 83%, the Wall Street Journal 70%, and even Fox News 52%.

Account should also be taken of the lack of diversity of political opinion in universities, since they have a responsibility to educate those who will become reporters.  Education should emphasize the necessity to be free of bias in scholarship, and the dangers of curtailment of free speech on university campuses, ideological conformity, and outright discrimination. But studies show that political correctness pervades the campus, and that political leaning of faculty is overwhelmingly leftist and friendly to the Democratic party. An article by Mitchell Langbert titled “Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty” in the June 2018 Academic Questions published by the National Association of Scholars analyzed a sample of 8,688 tenure track professors from liberal arts colleges and showed that the ratio of liberal to conservative faculty is 12.7-1 if military colleges are excluded, and 10.4-1 if they are included. 

Figures for some colleges such as Wellesley, Swarthmore, Williams, indicate the ratio of the faculty is 120-1 liberal.  There are sharp differences in fields; engineering has 1.6-1 liberal and chemistry 5.2-1, and physics 6.2-.1; science is 6.3-1; social science 12.3-1 and humanities 31.9-1. Not a single Republican was found in gender studies, Africana, or peace studies, or in the faculty at Bryn Mawr. At the extreme were liberal bastions such as anthropology, 56-0, and communications, 18-0.

Universities should be reminded that a monologue is just a form of continuous fiction. It is time to focus on the bias, oversimplification, the inaccurate tonality, of issues presented in the media and the items chosen or neglected on an inherently ideological basis in the media and on the campus.