Fake news is a pressing concern, but many authorities, including President Donald Trump, have turned it from an opportunity into an even graver problem.
Fake news, rightly understood, describes a money-making site that casts itself as a news media outlet while it publishes wholly fabricated content.
Already, the term has lost its meaning as it’s seldom used to describe that.
At first, the widespread exposure of “fake news” seemed to forecast a promising future for serious reporters. It had the potential to be the turning point where readers in the Internet era began to appreciate quality journalism. Finally, some seemed to notice the flaw with most news sites’ business model that trades money for eyeballs, clicks and impressions.
Some people began boasting about their decisions to buy subscriptions to legitimate publications.
My hope that fake news would expose the reality that quality journalism will exist only so long as people will pay for it, though, was short lived.
I report on business in one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs, about 45 minutes from Manhattan. Shortly before I planned to head home after a late night at work recently, a company’s senior executive called and accused me of “promoting propaganda” and “fake news.”
I had published a story about a protest that morning outside her company’s offices, which are located in my paper’s coverage area. It was one of several, unrelated protests in town that week, and I wrote short pieces about them all.
After some back and forth, the caller’s intent was clear.
She expected me to take down the story and forget the protest ever happened.
She disregarded my explanation that our community newspaper exists to inform locals about what’s going on, which includes why many passers-by saw a crowd and giant union truck protesting a shareholders’ meeting that could lead to a significant pay raise for the company’s CEO .
Then the insults started.
She called my reporting fake news. The events described in my story weren’t invented. She, and her company, just didn’t like the negative publicity.
She called it propaganda, hoping that would carry enough negative connotation to bludgeon me into doing what she wanted. She went so far as to name drop her past employer, a prominent business news publication, and claim she “knows all about journalism ethics, and this isn’t it.”
By using and misusing derogatory terms like fake news, she and many others seek to attack information with which they disagree or dislike. But by mangling the meaning of those terms, the line between what is fake and what is real is even more blurry than before.
The term “fake news” has quickly become just another buzzword that’s really doesn’t mean anything at all.
It’s convenient, and perhaps beneficial in the short run, to silence critics by calling their reports fake. But these authorities should consider the long-term consequences.
It’s widely admitted that finding high-caliber reporting is hard. And facts and data are often exploited to serve a writer’s agenda. But what are the repercussions once words like fake and real or lies and truth no longer have value?
George Orwell reasons a dim future for such a society in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” which I read many times during my Hillsdale education. Political language is intentionally corrupted by everyone from “Conservatives to Anarchists” to control ideas and thoughts, Orwell writes. It is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Perverting things like “fake news” means we will soon lose our grip on what is real.
Ms. Bennett is a 2016 Hillsdale College graduate and is now working in journalism.