Lies, Damn Lies, and the Free Press
In 1998, Donald Trump gave an interview to People Magazine, where he floated the idea of potentially running for President one day. Trump is quoted as saying, “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Let it cogitate, irritate, and anger.
Angry? Good. Then keep reading.
The first paragraph is a lie.
Although Trump routinely gave interviews to People Magazine in that time period, there is absolutely no record of him having ever made such a statement. And yet, this meme made its rounds on the Internet beginning last year, undeterred by the absence of facts substantiating its existence.
What an interesting turn of events that, 13 years later, the subject of this fake meme himself perpetrated a grand piece of fake news, the so called “Big Lie,” that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Ironic, no?
And just two months before the November 2016 elections, Trump finally admitted that Obama was indeed born in the US. But to his throngs of dedicated supporters, the late inning admission mattered not an ounce. Trump also claimed that Obama’s birth certificate probably also said he was a Muslim. Now you and I and every other rational thinker knows that birth certificates do not classify people by religion. But no matter. He was a Muslim born outside the United States. Despite being debunked again and again, this myth has endured. In the end, Trump admitted that the whole birther charade “made me very popular.” And here we come to the issue of the press, news, and critical thinking.
In the United States, freedom of the press traces its roots to colonial times when criticizing the local governor was something of a sport. A famous case in 1734 involved The New York Weekly Journal, and its editor John Peter Zenger. The Journal routinely skewered the New York Royal Governor, William Cosby, portraying him as an oppressive
royal placeholder. Cosby filed suit for libel. Zenger’s defense attorneys argued that, under English common law, “truth was a valid defense against libel,” and Zenger was acquitted. This landmark case was instrumental in developing the American concept of freedom of the press. Today, the American press is commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate, i.e., the fourth branch of government independent of the first three.
You can see then that the press carries an enormous responsibility in policy-making and policy-shaping. Because the American people are sovereign (as opposed to the Crown in the UK), our press wields the feedback loop stick. The press is the means by which the sovereign is kept abreast of the policies that our elected officials are enacting on our behalf in the Capitol. It is effectively the checks and balances against the first three branches of government. (Sidebar: if you’ve read this far, you should be absolutely apoplectic at any attempt by the incoming administration to restrict press access).
In today’s hyper-connected world, there is another estate called – you guessed it – the Fifth Estate. This is made up of people like me, bloggers and other self-made journalists out peddling their opinion, commentary, or in the extreme case, their version of the facts. In the same way that mainstream media attempts to keep the three branches in check, the Fifth Estate essentially aims to keep the other four, but especially the mainstream media, honest. And this is where this election cycle appears to have gone off on a wide tangent. An electorate deeply suspicious of the mainstream media readily devoured every blatant lie, one after the other, spewed out by a candidate peddling his own version of facts. No fact-checking, no critical thinking, no reflection on how ludicrous the suggestion. Fueled by the quick and easy access to millions of social media followers, many of these lies went viral within hours of being invented.
Take this example of how a software trade show conference in Austin on November 9 morphed into “paid Anti-Trump protesters being bussed into the city.” The original post was retweeted 16,000 on Twitter (including by Chief Tweeter Trump himself) and shared 350,000 times on Facebook. It was debunked several times, including by the original poster himself, to absolutely no avail. The audience decided what version of truth they wanted to hear, and that was reality as far as they were concerned.What does all this mean for us going forward? Several things.
First, be critical! Critical of everything you see and hear. Do not take everything you hear as fact without checking it out yourself. I know you’re thinking, “fool, I already do that.” And I bet as soon as you’re done reading this, you’re going to go retweet something or share someone’s Facebook meme. Don’t be part of the problem!
Second, recognize that media bias exists, but there is a distinct difference between bias and invention. Bias means actually using facts and telling them from a political slant. Every major mainstream publication falls somewhere along the bias continuum. See below. The true “truth” is somewhere between what CNN and Fox News report. Or if you want to cut to the chase, the Wall Street Journal is about as close to unbiased as you’ll get (and as close to an endorsement as I’ll give).
For the record, I’ve already admitted that The Brooding Brahmin is a center-left blog. So you know my bias.
Third, if you want real unbiased facts, go to the source itself. Don’t read any of these papers. Go to the Congressional website, pull up the bill or proposal, and read it yourself. Form your own opinion. Don’t let some Internet charlatan tell you what to think! That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. Or use PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org.
A final word – my pledge to you: I will not be a tool in this fake news madness. Anything you read on The Brooding Brahmin has been vetted, researched, and cross-checked against the source, or either PolitiFact or FactCheck. So you can rest assured that you’re getting my fact-based biased commentary 🙂