Jules Witcover: On fake news and fakers of truth
WASHINGTON — Along with a president-elect who thrives on peddling lies and made-up stuff, the American public currently is obliged to put up with a growing ugly phenomenon on the Internet: purveyors of rank falsity for mischief and profit.
The reference is not only to the vicious juveniles who intentionally manufacture outrageous whoppers in a callous dash for eyeballs. More dangerous are the peddlers of politically motivated and untrue hate, with no regard for their impact on the need for truthful public discourse.
The latest attack on a D.C. pizza parlor was ignited by a fake story alleging Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a secret child molestation ring. It was spread by, among others, Donald Trump’s just-appointed national security adviser, which shows the degree to which this sickness has infected the country.
Less scurrilous but significant is the poisoning of professional journalism that seeks to report and comment on what actually is said and done by elected public officials.
In less conspiratorial days, newspaper bylines were provided to adjudge reliability of the content reported, and in commentary to convey an openly held point of view. On radio and television, too, political panels of analysts and commentators consisted of nonpartisan reporters called on to present the verifiable facts and then to base their discussions on them.
But political journalism has steadily and too often segued from fact-gathering and explaining to entertainment and a kind of show business. Such panels have now become a mix of reporters and political players, often turning both into celebrities, and it’s hard to tell which is which.
Many responsible and seasoned print reporters join such groups and straightforwardly fulfill their professional obligations. Some others have been known to actively lobby television and radio talk shows for appearances, fame and profit.
Meanwhile, network and cable shows book or sign on as “contributors” (see CNN and Fox News) political operatives who have clear identifications with political parties and candidates. They shill for them on the air, going far beyond offering balanced and unbiased views to audiences not politically sophisticated enough to separate the reporter from the paid political operative. In this mixed bag of journalism and entertainment, distinctions can easily be missed.
On CNN during the campaign and on election night, Trump’s current campaign manager, Kelleyanne Conway, sat with CNN political analyst Gloria Borger on the panel; other similar pairings were regularly seen on the MSNBC panels.
In this past election season, CNN hired Donald Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, as a contributing commentator after he was fired from the campaign (but reportedly still was receiving severance pay).
At a high-profile post-election campaign debriefing at Harvard’s Institute of Politics last week, Lewandowski passed off as some kind of a joke Trump’s earlier no-evidence charge, widely circulated, that millions were denied ballots, vote, implying that’s why he lost the popular vote.
“You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” he chided the assembled journalists. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
But the lie Trump told was not around some table or bar; it went out on the Internet. So how are the same American people to know when the president-elect is to be taken literally or is just kidding around?
When a man who lacks common courtesy, decency and above all a decent regard for the truth routinely substitutes convenient outright lying for it, he shouldn’t be in the White House.
It’s often said that, when a presidential candidate runs who has no or little experience in high political office, the Oval Office is no place to learn how to be a good president. It can be argued, though not by Trump, that it wasn’t the case when Barack Obama stepped in eight years ago. He had only been a freshman senator then, but he ended with majority approval in the polls.
All of us — Republican, Democrat and independent alike — can only hope that Trump similarly can learn, as the awful responsibility awaiting him eventually dawns on him.