If I could, I would erase two words from the American lexicon: “fake news.”
That’s not because it doesn’t exist; there are countless examples of reporting throughout history where journalists and others have published or broadcast incorrect stories — deliberately or by mistake.
The Spanish-American War was started when a New York City newspaper made-up outlandish reporting that claimed the Spanish military blew up the USS Maine. Didn’t happen. A prime example of fake news at its worst.
More recently, during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, a flood of crackpot conspiracy theories, misleading reports and flat-out lies from sources foreign and domestic contaminated Americans’ media diet. The result of that misinformation campaign may well prove far more costly than the war in 1898.
In fact the casualties are already stacking up. Among the wounded is popular reliance on verifiable facts and open access to critical information.
This isn’t merely collateral damage. Faith in a strong independent press — an institution prized by our nation’s founders — is the subject of a concerted assassination campaign.
Today Americans are inundated with charges of “fake news” from the White House down the political ladder to state and local officials and would-be office holders. Perversely, the accusations are rarely leveled against actual propaganda organs or radical ideologues — the attempt to get to the bottom of Russia’s effective misinformation campaign is, in contrast, called a “witch hunt” — but at credible, ethical, transparent and professional institutions and reporters. It’s as though America suffered an epidemic and the government’s response was to try to discredit doctors, nurses and pathologists.
The Orwellian tactic has become so commonplace and mainstream that we’re now seeing it used in Wyoming.
Dr. Taylor Haynes, a candidate for the Wyoming Republican nomination for governor, recently chose to respond to a WyoFile report that his state residency is under investigation and that he may not be eligible to hold the office by calling it “fake news” and a politically motivated “pack of lies.”
He chose not to provide information or respond to questions prior to publication or after the story broke, though he was given many opportunities. At no point did he address the substance of the report with WyoFile, or offer contradictory evidence. He opted instead to attack the credibility of the messenger. Frankly, the move is beneath a man of his considerable intelligence, laudable personal accomplishments and seemingly genuine commitment to public service. It does not advance his political aspirations and it does a terrible disservice to the state he aims to serve.
But Haynes won’t be the last politician to try to brush aside a credible report by labeling it fake, especially since President Trump has proven that it often works.
I make no judgments about whether Haynes is eligible to run for governor of Wyoming. Last week the state’s attorney general concluded that he is not, and now it’s up to the courts (pending any appeals) to decide the matter. The Laramie Boomerang reports that a day-and-a-half trial has been set for Aug. 7 on the matter.
But I cite Haynes’ use of the tactic to demonstrate how insulting it is to the intelligence of voters who are being told to ignore evidence in favor of blind trust in politicians. It’s a core tenet of the message being delivered by Trump daily: the media is the biggest enemy of the American people.
Last Tuesday the president did something remarkable, even by his standards — he gave a crowd of veterans his outrageous, in-the-gutter assessment of the media and told them to only listen to him. “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening,” Trump said, motioning toward the reporters covering him. “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.”
Had I not read it in the paper, I’d have guessed the quote was pulled from “1984” — the novel about an authoritarian government dystopia, not the year.
Trump relies on the electorate to ignore unflattering facts about him on grounds that it comes from a leftist media out to destroy him. If a small fraction of the evidence were considered in earnest by a majority of Americans he’d be sunk. But telling everyone to ignore what they see with their own eyes is a dangerous tell-tale sign that Big Brother has indeed set up shop in the White House.
We can’t control how the country reacts to Trump’s grandiose take on his presidency and how he’s the only one people can trust. But we don’t have to put up with it at home. Wyoming residents can insist on weighing whether a story is true rather than just taking a politician’s word that it’s fake news.
Haynes is free, of course, to defend himself both in court and to the public anyway he chooses. I suggest, though, that his “fake news” response does not serve himself, investigators, journalists, the courts or voters well.
If his case is so strong, he should address the evidence. Instead he denied the clear truth that evidence existed until the Attorney General and the Wyoming Secretary of State made public the results of their investigation with court filings and a press release. At that point, Haynes sought to discredit Secretary of State Ed Buchanan by noting his involvement prior to taking office with Haynes’ political rival, Harriet Hageman.
Can you imagine the election chaos that would ensue if Haynes won the primary and was then determined to be ineligible to be the GOP’s nominee?
The fake news excuse is used by politicians like Haynes in the hope that the public will see them as victims, not people whose behavior warrants scrutiny. And sadly it often works.
Big Horn Radio Network talk show host Darian Dudrick took Haynes’ claims of victimhood hook, line and sinker. With Haynes as a guest on his show “Speak Your Piece” Dudrick reframed Haynes argument with a question. Perhaps, he suggested, if WyoFile’s “so called writer” had examined Hayne’s title deed there wouldn’t have been a story. “Good journalists do that,” he said in response to Haynes’ assertion that WyoFile should have done more research.
The suggestion shows absolutely no recognition for the basic mechanics of investigative journalism. To uncover the truth, it’s critical that an independent media dig for, request, examine, demand and otherwise pursue all of the evidence. Dropping the investigation of a story after seeing one document would be tantamount to journalistic malpractice and a disservice to the truth-seeking public.
The statement also betrayed Dudrick’s gullibility and apparent disinterest in rudimentary research. The referenced deed clearly lists property in Larimer County, Colorado. It was a disservice to his listeners, who deserve a community voice that is willing to ask hard questions of would-be political office holders and not merely take their word.
None of which has dissuaded supporters from parroting the same unfounded claim on social media and elsewhere. And that’s the dangerous part.
The media is not the enemy of the people. Its open questioning of the system is vital and done in the public interest, on behalf of the public’s right to know what’s going on. If as a nation we become indoctrinated to the idea that all news is fake, partisan and can’t be trusted — which seems to be where we’re headed under Trump — we become much more likely to accept the official version of what’s happened and stop questioning our leaders at all levels.
WyoFile first broke the news that Haynes’ residency was in question and under investigation on July 5. It did so though officials wanted to keep the investigation off the public record. Along with the Laramie Boomerang, WyoFile continued to report on questions raised by voting records and other public documents until the Attorney General and the Secretary of State finally filed charges and made public statements two weeks later.
I’m glad state officials took the charges seriously. Were it not for independent reporting, however, voters would have continued casting early ballots for another two weeks without knowing that one candidate may be ineligible to hold the office he was asking them to vote him into.
Let’s insist that politicians stop labeling all news critical of them as fake, and make them understand that we’re capable of using our own eyes, ears and brains to assess the evidence and determine what’s true.