Fake News versus False News

February 28th, 2017

You’ve heard a lot about “fake news” lately and if you’ve seen Sean Spicer’s daily press briefings (which are quite interesting) you’re well aware of the ongoing debate about “fake news” in the media.

As we learned in the last election, fake news is essentially a totally made up story.  Typically, it’s a pretty salacious tale originating from the imagination of an individual who either thinks foisting a yarn on the public is hilariously funny or is simply being vicious.

The best recent example of fake news comes from none other than Reps. Elijah Cummings and Nancy Pelosi who called a news conference in response to a fake Michael Flynn Twitter account.  The tweet they responded to had Flynn declaring himself a “scapegoat” but one who was happy to fall on his sword for the Trump Administration.

“The inference to be drawn from his statement is that other people had blame that should be shared in all of this,” Pelosi declared indignantly.

Cummings went further saying, “I believe we need to hold a public hearing with Flynn to get to the bottom of this.”

Likely embarrassed upon discovering that they’d fallen for the fake tweet, their offices later issued a quiet retraction.

And this isn’t the only example.  The nomination of Neil Gorsuch immediately drew a number of fake stories that tended to live a day or two.

So how does this differ from “false news?” Based on my own experience, false news isn’t created out of whole cloth from the imagination of the author.  Instead, it derives from complete misinformation coupled with a bias that leads the author to hope it’s true.

Here’s an example.

When I worked on the Bush campaign during the Florida recount, I managed a group of young professionals supportive of then Governor Bush.  We needed attorneys to go to Florida to help with the recount effort, and my group had the best ready-made source of attorneys who would likely be eager to help our side.

I immediately put out a message to my contacts across the country asking if they could identify attorneys who hadn’t otherwise helped with the campaign financially and who might like to go to Florida and assist with the effort.  One evidently very creative contact took my message and spiced it up a bit.  He made it sound like a vacation.  (Who wouldn’t want to go to Florida in December?!)  He also suggested that the campaign would pay their way.

None of this was true.  We weren’t paying and it was anything but a vacation. Despite that, we had more than enough people volunteering at their own experience.

Then something curious happened.  Pretty soon we were inundated with press requests asking about our effort to pay people to go to Florida.  A member of our communication staff asked me to call Lisa Myers of NBC News and straighten out the mess.

“No, we are not paying people to go to Florida,” I explained.

“Well, this story is going all over DC,” she told me.

Clearly, members of the press didn’t totally make the story up.  They had some basis to think (and probably wanted to believe) it was true, but it wasn’t.

And this wasn’t the only example.  If there is one thing I learned working on the Bush campaign, it’s that you can’t always believe what you read in the news.  Oftentimes, I would read something I knew for a fact wasn’t true because I knew exactly what was going on because I was there.

Is all news fake or false?  No, but if you want to be a wise consumer of the news, particularly in this extremely partisan era where members of the press lean decidedly to the left, it’s wise to take a lot of what you read or hear (at least initially) with a grain of salt.