In the past couple of years, the focus of the right-wing attack on journalists has been shifting from “liberal media” to ”fake news.” It’s a significant but underappreciated shift that reveals a sinister truth about our historical moment.
It’s nothing new to charge media “bias”—usually leftward, though sometimes rightward. The charge that the media slant to the left has been a right-wing staple for more than five decades. Implied in the charge is a remedy: Liberal media need countering by conservative media. Usually, the charge has been leveled in a spirit of spiteful resentment, as, for example, in 1964, when Barry Goldwater’s press secretary passed out gold pins to reporters that read “Eastern Liberal Press.”
But bias per se was not—at least not consistently—held to be taboo. During Goldwater’s campaign, for example, the newsletter Human Events, beloved of Ronald Reagan, sought to distinguish itself from mainstream journalism by proclaiming that it “looks at events through eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise, and individual freedom.” The underlying theory was straightforward. Bad ideology produced distortion, which in turn hijacked public judgment and undermined righteous leadership. The ideological portal was already open for Rupert Murdoch’s and Roger Ailes’s “fair and balanced” Fox News.
The right’s attacks on liberal bias intensified during the Vietnam War. By the fall of 1969, the right was transfixed by the belief that a major reason why America was failing to win the war was that journalists, especially on network television, had misrepresented the war. Richard Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew banged away against the “instant analysis and querulous criticism” that “emanate[d] from a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts” and diverted attention from Nixon’s Herculean labors in behalf of peace.
Agnew had a theory of the origin of this bias. The press, he maintained, was run by a nasty elite fraternity, a
little group of men … [who] wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues of our nation. … A small group of men, numbering perhaps no more than a dozen anchormen, commentators, and executive producers, settle upon the 20 minutes or so of film and commentary that's to reach the public. … A small and unelected elite [are responsible for] a narrow and distorted picture of America.
Also in 1969, a Federal Reserve economist named Reed Irvine founded “Accuracy in Media,” aiming to expose liberal bias. Irvine won the support of the billionaire hard-right crusader Richard Mellon Scaife (whose Pittsburgh Tribune-Review later promoted the falsehood that the Clintons were responsible for what he claimed was the murder of White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster). In 1971, the TV Guide writer and Ayn Rand acolyte Edith Efron published a pseudo-scholarly book, The News Twisters, purporting to demonstrate that network news followed “the elitist-liberal-left line in all controversies.”
The charge against “liberal media” helped the right explain to itself why it had not prevailed in public opinion—not yet, at any rate. Having begun showing up in books in 1964, according to Google Ngram’s database, the phrase “liberal media” flourished during the Reagan presidency. From 1985 to 2006, it jumped twentyfold before declining. Meanwhile, the phrase “fake news” began to climb. (Unfortunately, the data run no further than 2008.) “Liberal media” still predominated. “Fair and balanced” was Fox News’s clever riposte, a doublethink claim of objectivity. If you disagreed with Fox News’s take, you were ipso facto biased. But the term “fake news,” which had shown up here and there in the American press of the 1890s, took off.
Fast forward now to the Trump campaign and its aftermath. By Politifact’s count, Trump spoke or tweeted about “fake news” 153 times during the first 11 months of 2017. Characteristically, he claims to have “come up with” the term. Typical is this tweet: “Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!”
What Politifact means by “fake news” is “fabricated content that intentionally masquerades as news coverage of actual events.” By contrast, “Instead of fabricated content, Trump uses the term to describe news coverage that is unsympathetic to his administration and his performance, even when the news reports are accurate.”
The same can be said of Trump’s admirers who govern in the Philippines, Venezuela, Russia, Syria, Myanmar, China, and other autocracies. All they need say to dismiss displeasing facts is “Fake news.” Full stop. For their fans, the discussion is over.
Herein lies the big deal about the charge of “fake news.” You can argue with a charge of bias—liberal, conservative, whatever. You can try to show that the accuser is cherry-picking evidence, or asking the wrong questions, or interpreting the evidence in a skewed, disputable fashion. In principle, an open discussion can proceed. Evidence counts. Logic counts. Values engage. If reasonable people disagree, they can at least in principle agree on the reasons they disagree.
But against the charge of “fake news” no rebuttal is possible. No engagement is possible. No thought avails. To charge “fake news” is to say that the factual claim at issue has no authentic existence. What was “faked” didn’t happen in any form whatsoever. “Fake news” is an accusation that stops conversation—unless you consider “Yes it is!”/“No it isn’t!” a conversation.
The deeply disturbing fact is that some substantial proportion of American citizens are now willing to dismiss as fake those statements that they don’t want to hear. That is, they have taken up residence in a universe of their own. Their protective bubble does not permit dispute or modification. Through the person of Donald Trump or Sean Hannity or Alex Jones or Mike Cernovich, the truth has been proclaimed once and for all. Followers need ask no further question.
How much of the population is impressed by the charge of “fake news”? There’s not much polling; different polls ask different questions; the results are all over the place. But the proportion is not small. A February 2017 Fox News poll asked registered voters “How concerned are you that fake news is hurting the country?” The findings: very concerned, 61 percent; somewhat concerned, 23 percent. A month later, a Monmouth University Poll asked: “Do you think some traditional major news sources like TV and newspapers ever report fake news stories, or not? Do they do this regularly or just occasionally?” Twenty-seven percent said, “Yes, regularly.” Thirty-six percent said, “Yes, occasionally.”
In October, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found: “Nearly half of voters, 46 percent, believe the news media fabricate news stories about President Donald Trump and his administration.” That 46 percent corresponded to Trump’s 2016 popular vote, and exceeded his approval rating, which in October stood at about 38 percent. Moreover, according to Politico/Morning Consult, “Among the voters who strongly approve of Trump’s job performance in the poll, 85 percent believe the media fabricate stories about the president and his administration.”
By any of these measures, the public that swallows the accusation that unwelcome reports are “fake” is substantial. They are comfortable with their certainties, impervious to disagreement, fortified to bypass or eviscerate any naysayers. Climate change is “fake news.” Trump’s long-term collaboration with Russian interests is “fake news.” The true believers who pulverize the search for truth are a fixture of American life. Their attachment to their heroes is absolute and impregnable. They have built themselves a big, beautiful wall. They have laid the cornerstones of absolutism. They can, perhaps, be contained. But they are not going away.