After the election, Democrats could not explain the inexplicable defeat of Hillary Clinton, who would be, they thought, the shoo-in winner in November. Over the next three months until Inauguration Day, progressives floated a variety of explanations for the Trump win—none of them, though, mentioned that the Clinton campaign had proven uninspired, tactically inept, and never voiced a message designed to appeal to the working classes.
When a particular exegesis of defeat failed to catch on, it was mostly dropped—and then replaced by a new narrative. We were told that the Electoral College wrongly nullified the popular vote—and that electors had a duty to renege on their obligations to vote for their respective state’s presidential winner.
Then followed the narrative of Trump’s racist dog-whistle appeals to the white working classes. When it was reported that Barack Obama had received a greater percentage of the white votes than did either John Kerry in 2004 or Hillary Clinton in 2016, the complaint of white chauvinism too faded.
Then came the allegation that FBI Director James Comey had given the election to Trump by reopening the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails just days before Election Day. That fable too evaporated when it was acknowledged that Comey had earlier intervened to declare Clinton without culpability and would so again before November 8.
Then came the trope that Vladimir Putin’s hackers stole the election—on the theory that the Wikileaks revelations had turned off the electorate in a way the Clinton candidacy otherwise would not have. That storyline then evolved into the idea of Russian propagandists and Trump supporters variously peddling “fake news” to websites to promulgate myths and distortions—as a grand plan to Hillary Clinton and give Trump the election.
More specifically, it was alleged that Trump’s exaggerations and fabrications—from his allegations about Barack Obama’s birth certificate to rumor-mongering about Ted Cruz’s father—had so imperiled journalism that the media in general was forced to pronounce there was no longer a need to adhere to disinterested reporting in the traditional sense.
The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour confessed that they could not be fair in reporting the news in the era of Donald Trump. Apparently, being fair had become tantamount to being a co-conspirator in Trump falsity. The New York Times in a post-election op-ed explained why it had missed the Trump phenomenon, admitting, but not necessarily lamenting, that its own coverage of the election had not been fair and balanced.
Yet all politicians fib and distort the truth—and they’ve been doing so since the freewheeling days of the Athenian ekklesia. Trump’s various bombastic allegations and claims fall into the same realm of truthfulness as Obama’s statement “if you like your health plan, you can keep it”—and were thus similarly cross-examined by the media.
Yet fake news is something quite different. It is not merely a public figure’s spinning of half-truths. It is largely a media-driven, and deliberate attempt to spread a false narrative to advance a political agenda that otherwise would be rejected by a common-sense public. The methodology is to manufacture a narrative attractive to a herd-like progressive media that will then devour and brand it as fact—and even lobby for government redress.
Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen has never been to Prague to negotiate quid pro quo deals with the Russians. Trump did not watch Russian strippers perform pornographic acts in the bedroom that Barack Obama once stayed in during a visit to Moscow. Yet political operatives, journalists, and even intelligence officers, in their respective shared antipathy to Trump, managed to lodge these narratives into the public consciousness and thereby establish the “truth” that a degenerate Trump was also a Russian patsy.
No one has described the methodology of fake news better than Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor for Barack Obama and brother of the president of CBS News, David Rhodes. Ben Rhodes cynically bragged about how the Obama administration had sold the dubious Iran deal through misinformation picked up by an adolescent but sympathetic media (for which Rhodes had only contempt). As Rhodes put it, “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Translated, that meant that Rhodes and his team fed false narratives about the Iran Deal to a sympathetic but ignorant media, which used its received authority to report those narratives as “truth”—at least long enough for the agreement to be passed before its multitudinous falsehoods and side-agreements collapsed under their own weight. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes bragged to the New York Times: “They [reporters] were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Obama’s healthcare advisor Jonathan Gruber likewise saw the virtues of fake news in pushing a political agenda. Gruber assumed that the public, not just the media, was stupid and easily conned: “Lack of transparency,” he said, “is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever.”
Again, the term “fake news” is best applied to mainstream media reporting of fantasies as facts that are demonstrably not true—and are probably known to be not true, but are thought to help advance a desired progressive political or cultural agenda.
A good example of such fake news is the Duke rape story of 2006. Over a decade ago, an African-American stripper falsely accused three Duke Lacrosse players of rape. The media eagerly consumed and enhanced the narrative fed to it by radical civil rights groups and a legion of progressive Duke academics: privileged white male students had predictably sexually abused a woman of color, whose poverty had forced her to perform sexually demeaning acts for frat jocks.
The three accused students were summarily indicted on rape charges and expelled from Duke, and the lacrosse team’s season was cancelled and its coach fired—all without reliable forensic or investigatory evidence that corroborated charges of assault. By the time the professional stripper was shown to have fabricated the entire charge, lives were ruined, but the narrative of racial exploitation had been firmly implanted. Jesse Jackson, for example, offered to pay the alleged victim’s college tuition and said the fact that she had concocted the story was irrelevant.
A somewhat similar fake news story about rape was promulgated by Rolling Stone in a 9,000-word article (“A Rape on Campus”) that supposedly detailed a savage gang rape in 2012 of a University of Virginia first year co-ed. The narrative served as an illustration of a supposed nationwide epidemic of sexual assault. Later, Rolling Stone retracted the story as fictional, and was sued by both the innocent students and defamed administrators. But the myth once again served the useful cause of creating hysteria about sexually predatory, white-male undergraduate frat boys. Even after their respective refutations, both the Duke and Virginia fake news cases promoted a climate favoring new campus directives curtailing notions of due process in matters of alleged sexual assault.
Other examples abound. There was the “story” that racial slurs were shouted at a Washington DC 2010 Tea Party demonstration against Obamacare. There was the “story” that the purported last words uttered by Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, were “hands up, don’t shoot”—a story that helped to give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. And there was the hysterical narrative, spun by progressive politicians and environmental activists, that California was in a “permanent drought” due to global warming that required institutionalized water rationing. (Currently, California is enjoying one of the wettest seasons on record following normal precipitation in 2015-16.)
What unites these fake news narratives and gives them greater media resonance than other fables and urban myths is again their progressive resonance. Fake news can become a means to advance supposedly noble ends of racial, gender, class, or environmental justice—such as the need for new sexual assault protocols on campuses. Those larger aims supersede bothersome and inconvenient factual details. The larger “truth” of fake news lives on even after its facts have been utterly debunked.
And indeed, the fake news mindset ultimately can be traced back to the campus. Academic postmodernism derides facts and absolutes, and insists that there are only narratives and interpretations that gain credence, depending on the power of the story-teller. In other words, white male establishment reactionaries have set up fictive rules of “absolute” truth and “unimpeachable” facts, and they have further consolidated their privilege by forcing the Other to buy into their biased and capricious notions of discriminating against one narrative over another.
The work of French postmodernists—such as Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida that mesmerized academics in the 1980s with rehashed Nietzschean banalities about the absence of facts and the primacy of interpretation—has now been filtered by the media to a nationwide audience. If the mythical exclamation “hands up, don’t shoot” was useful in advancing a narrative of inordinate police attacks against African Americans, who cares whether he actually said it? And indeed, why privilege a particular set of elite investigatory methodologies to ascertain its veracity?
In sum, fake news is journalism’s popular version of the nihilism of campus postmodernism. To progressive journalists, advancing a leftwing political agenda is important enough to justify the creation of misleading narratives and outright falsehoods to deceive the public—to justify, in other words, the creation of fake but otherwise useful news.