With the term “fake news” being so en vogue these days, two absolutely false stories by people masquerading as journalists to manipulate minds made the news this week:
* Calls made to Alabamians by a man claiming to be a Washington Post reporter offering cash rewards to women who’d make “damaging remarks” against embattled U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore.
* A federal appeals court heard arguments by the Associated Press and a press freedom organization regarding the use of a practice where an FBI agent posed as an AP reporter to locate a teenage suspect in a 2007 investigation.
The credibility of newspapers – and the journalists they employ – being leveraged by those trying to achieve ends is inexcusable. Regardless of whether the intent was a smear campaign or an attempt to ensure public safety, these actions are attacks on the free press that only undermine the public’s trust in the Fourth Estate.
Newspapers reach the audiences they do because of their reputation. Who would pay for and read a product if it weren’t trustworthy? That’s why several million Americans subscribe to newspapers. If it appears in a newspaper, many rightly believe that the reporter or reporting is accurate and that the content has met certain standards to be published.
Yet that hard-earned credibility is ripe for exploitation for that very reason.
Both actors’ ignorance of the high ethical standards the news industry demands of journalists – with the Alabama caller offering cash for information (a completely unacceptable technique) and the undercover FBI agent sharing what he said was a draft of his story for review that instead contained malware to locate a teen who faked several bomb threats at his school – are particularly galling.
Situations like these offer fuel to the fire of those who wave their hands and dismiss news coverage they don’t like as “fake news.” People cite rumor and innuendo as proof of some corruption or conspiracy exists among journalists operating in collusion to tarnish a person or idea.
Even before the bogus Post voicemail was brought to light, a Twitter account named “Doug Lewis #MAGA” – MAGA being “make America great again – suggested he’d heard that a Post reporter named Beth was offering $1,000 for people to impugn Moore.
But those falsehoods soon bred others. The claims the operator of the account had made about himself, such as his employment history, were quickly skewered by those seeking to confirm them. When the myths were debunked, the account was deleted.
For those who want to point fingers at “fake news,” those posing as reporters to influence the Alabama Senate race and end a criminal investigation provide ample opportunity. The reporters who make a career out of seeking and reporting truth, however, are no more than a misplaced target.