Trump’s bellowing about fake news implies that the media lies about him and his policies. Well, of course they offer very selective versions of the news all the time. Newspapers have always been partisan, often quite openly. Only two or three generations ago, every major city in the U.S. (and still now, in most European, Asian and Latin American countries) had several dailies, with some clearly favoring the working class, even being proudly socialist, and others being the “papers of record” that fed carefully edited opinion masquerading as news news to the middle and upper classes. But even the working-class papers, if pro-union, often were nativist, racist and pro-war. And, with the media consolidation of the past fifty years – and willing cooperation with the national security establishment – (/) the differences have diminished further.
In this sense, I would argue that most American media have been “fake” for decades, consistently playing two alternating and contradictory roles. On the one hand, they terrorize us about the latest threats (fear of communism shifting smoothly to Islamophobia precisely when the Soviet Union collapsed). On the other, they assure us with Disneyesque sweetness and full-page consumer advertising that everything is quite all right. This is long-term crazy-making, or schizogenetic, behavior. At the risk of being accused of being a gatekeeper myself, I’m noting a few useful links from sites that I trust:
There have been exceptions, but we can assume a basic rule: as far back as the war with Mexico in 1846 the major media and their gatekeepers have always lied to push the nation into war. Some have expressed regret, long after the fact, but that is the fact. But we’re talking about something new. Now we’re talking about the collapse of American myth in our time, and the intended effects of FEs.
In 2017, Harvard University established a large list of online publications that it tagged as “fake” and “false,” based primarily on the recommendations of a shadowy group called “PropOrNot” that blacklisted over 200 websites as agents or assets of the Russian state. The “Harvard Index” established a new normal, a guideline to colleges and universities, regarding what students and researchers should not trust or even read.
Consider the implications of those last three words. The cream of the crop, students at elite universities, are being told that they are so uninformed (un-formed), so untrustworthy, so impressionable, so utterly unable to study and form their own conclusions, that Mother Harvard, like the cultural guardians of McCarthyism, doesn’t even want them to be exposed to this stuff.
Apparently, Harvard’s gatekeepers established their list without reading or even consulting the contents of most of the alleged fake online publications. It was a massive and utterly unscientific attack upon virtually the entire spectrum of alternative media, including thousands of authors and dozens of news organizations which would now be categorized not only as unreliable but even as conspiracy theorists.
It was one of the most egregious examples of FE, listing (in my view) quite legitimate investigative researchers and sites in the same breathless list as Alex Jones and other rabidly misogynistic, white supremacist, anti-immigrant and outright Nazi publications. It had the authority of Harvard, it went out to thousands of schools, and it quite deliberately led readers to believe that nothing to the right or left of the major gatekeeping media should be consumed. The WAPO and other corporate media then cited this index repeatedly. It was circular logic as well: one of the fact-checking sources that Harvard used was the WAPO. Matt Taibbi writes:
The vast majority of reporters would have needed to see something a lot more concrete than a half-assed theoretical paper from such a dicey source before denouncing 200 news organizations as traitors.
FEs turn up in all kinds of public discourses, such as “competing victimhood.” A privileged group argues that another group shouldn’t complain or demand special attention from government because, they, the first group, had also been treated badly but had prospered nonetheless. For example, large numbers of Irish were brought to the New World as indentured servants. But claiming an “equality of suffering” between enslaved Africans and white Europeans has no other effect than to perpetuate white supremacy. Indeed, writes Liam Hogan, Trump supporters in North Carolina told a reporter for Time that “Irish slaves had it worse than African slaves.”
A trivial example, you might say. But it is not unrelated to a much more important one, the issue of electoral fraud and fake voters, which Trump raised immediately after the election, making the ludicrous claim that three-five million illegal voters had cost him the popular vote. It was, and continues to be, a smokescreen for the profoundly important reality of Republican voter suppression. But it fed directly into the bizarre condition that his supporters, despite their “victory,” still considered themselves to be victims of the deep state. By July of 2018, even ABC News was willing to report that states (mostly Republican) had purged 16 million voters in the three years prior to the election.
Some six million others, at least a third of them African-American, have been disenfranchised and banned entirely from voting, usually because they are ex-felons. This fact, along with voter suppression and hacking of voting machines (not by Russians but by Republican secretaries of state in Ohio and about 20 other states) far outweighs any other factors in the contemporary political situation. There is, of course, no evidence of millions of anti-Trump fake votes, but the repeated charges help to deflect public opinion from the actual situation, along with news of individuals caught up in the complexities of the situation: “Texas Woman Sentenced To 5 Years For Illegal Voting.”
Similarly, for a few years many centrists made a cottage industry of arguments that equated the origin, influence and popularity of the two “populist” movements: Occupy and the Tea Party. Typically, however, they ignored the vastly unequal treatment the two movements received from law enforcement, as well as the fact that the Tea Party had its own TV network that gave daily attention to its gatherings, no matter how small, and ignored much larger Occupy events. Most critically, they rarely mentioned the vast funding the Tea Party “grassroots insurgency” received from the Koch brothers and Big Tobacco.
This type of FE has a long pedigree going back to the 1930s and 1940s, when centrist media equated the threats of fascism and communism in America in order to marginalize leftists in trade unions. It is inseparable from similar tactics the actual Nazis used in Germany, and the fake terror plots concocted by the FBI (yes, the FBI of James Comey and Robert Mueller). When these FEs don’t have the intended fear mongering effect on the public, the next traditional step is the liberal use of agents provocateurs who, in countless examples, have converted peaceful, mass demonstrations into violent riots that justify even more violent police intervention.
And currently it centers on the issue of “free speech.” Trump doesn’t engage much in FEs, because the media – and now academia as well – do it for him, and because he plays the spokesperson for a deliberately indefinable, populist extreme that draws its energy by pretending to attack the establishment. The fact that his actual policies, like those of all his predecessors, consistently buttress that same establishment doesn’t matter. We are talking about rhetoric, not action.
He did utilize them after provoking and normalizing the violence In Charlottesville last year that left one anti-Nazi protester dead and 19 others wounded, and then equating anti-racist demonstrators with right-wing provocateurs and Alt-right criminals. His claim that there was both evil and “good people” on both sides was certainly an invitation to further abuses.
But to spread such nonsense, he needed help from the existence of something called the “Alt-left,” a term that progressives and leftists have never used to describe themselves. FOX created it, but the rest of the media ran with it, writes Adam Johnson:
As it turns out, there’s no way to suggest that unruly leftists are as bad as neo-Nazis without suggesting that neo-Nazis are no worse than unruly leftists…while coined by right-wing personalities such as Sean Hannity, the “alt-left” term quickly morphed into a catch-all smear employed by Clinton partisans and those charged with defending the more corporate, pro-war wing of the Democrats. It was a go-to smear online for The Nation’s Joan Walsh, Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss, Daily Kos and Vox Media founder Markos Moulitsas, Observer and Time writer Nick Cohen, Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert, self-appointed Clinton spinmeister Tom Watson, MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid and Center for American Progress head Neera Tanden, among others. “In many ways, this alt-left matches the alt-right…in their economic populism and bullying tactics.” —Gil Troy (Time, 12/7/16) The term was similarly employed by historian Gil Troy in Time (12/6/16), Vanity Fair‘s James Wolcott (3/3/17) and Ray Suarez on NPR’s On the Media (6/12/17)…All these pundits and writers presumably thought equating leftists with Nazis (the logical implication of the “alt” prefix) was an easy way to score points and position themselves on the Reasonable Liberal Left. What they did instead was provide fodder for anyone on the right, looking to trivialize the threat of an emerging neo-Nazism, to “both sides” the problem out of existence.
Who would deny Americans the right to speak out? Certainly not the NYT. However, a study shows that its coverage of free speech on university campuses focuses on the plight of conservative students by a margin of 7-to-1.