Immediately after the U.S. presidential election, mainstream media outlets went into a tailspin trying to shore up their legitimacy. The smug takes doubting Trump’s viability as a candidate have aged poorly; they now read like indictments of their failure to cover the rising allure of the far-right amid ongoing crises of capital and racial demographic changes. Reporters and editors were emotional like everybody else in the aftermath of November 8, and the more reflective among them were forced to consider not only a nightmare future but also their own complicity in it.
But institutions are slower to adapt and reform than individuals. Faced with a unique existential challenge, the press did what the humiliated always do in such circumstances: They found a scapegoat, which they called “fake news.” Since the election, mainstream outlets have worked hard to contrast themselves with the sources, like the deceptively titled ABCnews.com.co (it even fooled journalists), peddling bogus stories on Google and Facebook. The faddish set phrase “fake news” — as opposed to more standard and familiar descriptors like “rumor,” “misunderstanding,” or “deception” — has appeared in the mainstream press as a proxy for chaos (BuzzFeed on riots in Mexico), foreign intrusion (Washington Post on Russian propaganda), and even nuclear war (New York Times on Pakistan’s nuclear threat to Israel). Such stories present “fake news” as a unified, coherent phenomenon, a singular virus injected into the veins of global digital networks by Vladimir Putin and unemployed bachelors in Long Beach. The subtext of all these “fake news” pieces is a warning: Without the mainstream media, we’re all fucked.
Taking the virus metaphor literally, some university researchers even claimed to have found a way to “vaccinate” readers against fake news, which places like the Los Angeles Times passed along as useful information, as if the issue at hand were strictly a matter of readers’ inadequate defenses. In choosing a scapegoat, these publications were mirroring the grotesque self-justification strategy at the core of the Trump campaign, which had spent a year and a half shaping the disparate fears of mostly white voters into a cohesive authoritarian narrative. In contrast, by attacking fake news with the vigor it should have used to confront Trump and the threat he represented from the start, the corporate press revealed that it was still grasping for enemies from which to protect its comparably smaller fan base and prove its indispensability.
Attacks on the media by rich bullies were once seen as a private matter, instead of a unified threat to the fundamentals of the institution in a post-truth world
Scapegoating has not engendered self-awareness of how the mainstream media contributed to its own weakened standing. It persists in treating its legitimacy issue as a consumer failure to discern factual accuracy rather than anything it had done to lose reader trust — a condescending attitude that only reinforces the notion that the press are the out-of-touch coastal media elite Trump and his surrogates insist they are. As the mainstream press has defined the fake news crisis, it’s something it has little to no responsibility for; instead, fake news is initiated by malevolent content creators, circulated by indifferent technologists, and consumed by dumb and stubborn readers.
By overestimating their ability to define truth for distrustful public, these outlets made themselves vulnerable to the Trump administration’s machinations, as when the president labeled the “fake news” venerable media the enemy of the American people. Nonetheless, publications like the New York Times persist in using the term, as in a February 20 article identifying “fake news” as a foe of political stability in Europe.
The term “fake news” obscures the complex political factors underpinning the demand for ideologically slanted information and fueling the public displays of belief in it on social media and elsewhere. Journalists and editors may have a renewed appetite for challenging government officials and fighting to preserve their role as arbiters of truth for democracy (which would, according to the Washington Post, “die in darkness” without them). But the fight to establish common truths against an authoritarian-wannabe inclined to dictate rather than accommodate facts entails a different kind of struggle than corporate media outlets are used to. Confronting a wave of fascistic nationalism washing over the world, they can no longer represent their tacit adherence to the global capitalist economic and political worldview — transnational corporatism and the mostly illusory promise of upward mobility for some, and Western-managed warfare for the rest — as a neutral or objective editorial position. The exposure of this phony objectivity has created a crisis that goes all the way to the top, to the owners of these outlets.
A rare artist or polemicist might be able to captivate and persuade millions through mere words and some luck. But in today’s fragmented media environment, amid unprecedented wealth inequality, the fight for truth on a large scale is waged by those with money and material power. Before the ginned-up “fake news” controversy, this fight seemed to pivot on lawsuits: Peter Thiel’s role in bankrupting Gawker conjured visions of billionaires (including Trump) suing the investigative press out of existence. Last summer, at a panel from the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference about weathering lawsuits from billionaires, veteran reporters implored their audience to “be prepared for people to call you a scumbag” and “have really good lawyers.” Attacks on the media by rich bullies were still seen as a private matter; the panelists didn’t seem to appreciate the unified threat they posed to the fundamentals of the institution in a post-truth world.
It’s one thing to sue a newspaper for unflattering coverage, but entirely another to publicly batter journalists by name as an indictment against the press at large. “Fake news” has proven to be an effective bludgeon in this regard. Take, for example, Ray Dalio, chairman of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s richest hedge fund. Although he was initially reported to be anti-Trump, he seized upon the “fake news” hype in a January 3 LinkedIn post, “The Fake and Distorted News Epidemic,” which was aimed at discrediting a Wall Street Journal article critical of his firm. Sensing the press’s general lack of credibility, he presents his pique as a form of media critique, confident that his opinion about his own firm will come across as no less subjective than newspaper accounts of it. In the story Dalio criticizes, reporters Rob Copeland and Bradley Hope describe a police-state environment at Bridgewater in which employees are scrutinized and ranked according to a formula derived from Dalio’s personal manifesto. This surveillance is supposed to reduce employees’ “emotional interference.” Dalio writes in his response that most of his employees “love” working at Bridgewater rather than feel oppressed. The “fakeness” Dalio perceives in the Wall Street Journal article is not a matter of the facts it reports but the reporters’ tone. In other words, “fake news” is a matter of the narrative.
This points to the deeper struggle at the heart of the information war. Unlike facts, which can be accurate or inaccurate, narratives have winners and losers. They enjoin readers to take sides. They posit an us versus them. It’s no wonder, then, that Trump, who often construes situations in terms of winners and losers, was quick to recognize the efficacy of “fake news.” It discredits reporters as inherently partisan, on one side or another, and contributes to an environment in which power can’t be checked by truth. Instead, truth is an effect of power, and journalistic “objectivity” is merely a ruse in the service of one faction. In the latter sense, Trump is correct: The growing power of an adversary has stripped the mainstream press of its cloak of neutrality, exposing the political values and allegiances animating its coverage — in other words, exposing its narrative.
Unlike facts, which can be accurate or inaccurate, narratives have winners and losers. They enjoin readers to take sides
Narratives take an accumulation of information and organize it, presenting it in such a way that there is the a sense of trajectory: A story, to be a story, must be going somewhere. This would seem to pit narratives against newsfeeds, which simply go on and on, presenting more and more information. The degree to which platforms like Facebook foster fake news makes Mark Zuckerberg the billionaire most central to the fake news scandal. Facebook was pivotal in disseminating inaccuracies and dividing news consumers into explicit factions, yet Zuckerberg initially denied that Facebook played a significant role in tilting the election for Trump. He insisted on his platform’s basic neutrality, arguing that its algorithms merely follow its users’ inclinations. But later, in his nearly 6,000 word manifesto on how the social network could be used for good, he admitted that “misinformation and even outright hoax content” on his platform helped create broader problems. Facebook, he acknowledged, cultivates a particular media ecosystem through its coding decisions — something any news organization that lost revenue because of its changing algorithms can attest to — and cites “sensationalism and polarization” as causes for concern. Yet he argues that traditional media and not Facebook’s modes of affiliation and algorithmic sorting are to blame for these: “Even if [Facebook] eliminated all misinformation,” Zuckerberg writes, “people would just emphasize different sets of facts to fit their polarized opinions. That’s why I’m so worried about sensationalism in media.” The implication is that journalists are polarizing, not Facebook’s “objective” algorithms. Journalism has an agenda; Facebook presumably does not. That makes Zuckerberg sound a lot like Dalio, another rich person who dislikes his company being critiqued and responds by suggesting that the media self-regulate.
But the core issue, Zuckerberg argues, is the weakened sense of community in the world. Facebook, in his view, can address this by allowing us all to “commit our energy to building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together.” Such a plan would make Facebook even more central to civic life around the globe. This would give Zuckerberg himself the sort of influence over all of humanity that Dalio seeks over his employees.
The desire to define what is and isn’t fake news — to define narratives — should be considered an extension of these billionaires’ need to mold and configure people and their environments in ways they see fit. To adapt an old saying: Fake news is the symptom, but capitalism is the disease.
It would be a mistake, though, to unqualifiedly put Zuckerberg in the company of oligarchs like Dalio and Trump, who seek to discredit liberal institutions and damage the foundations of the contemporary press for what may be short-term power gains. Zuckerberg is also interested in growing his power, but he seems to believe the best way to do it is to maintain media conventions that uphold the status quo, in all its inequality and injustice. Recently, he and a cohort of other billionaires, including George Soros, Bill Gates, and Pierre Omidyar, pledged to fund the International Fact-Checking Network, whose responsibilities will include flagging false-fact news shared over Facebook. But checking facts without taking a position on the narratives they support, explicitly or tacitly, can only reinforce the existing distribution of power. It can confirm what the powerful ruling interests say, do, and believe, but it can’t interpret the agenda behind them. Fact checking is ultimately constrained by the patronage of the media companies and philanthropists that fund it.
The “alternative” press — short-lived newspapers throughout American history and less polished new sites today, often built and maintained by marginalized people cobbling their resources together or collecting small donations — does not face these same constraints. For contributors to these media outlets, some of which that were maligned as fake news after the election despite the wide respect they command, much mainstream reporting has always been a form of “fake news,” prone to racist and classist distortions from official sources that reinforce existing stratification. Yet for their distance from the status quo narrative and the supposedly “neutral” perspective it connotes, these journalists and editors are designated “advocate,” “alternative,” and “activist” — nonobjective partisans. Meanwhile the mainstream press, reliant on wealthy owners and corporate supporters and advertising dollars, is received as the only possible objective source, with its objectivity confirmed by the money it attracts.
A growing adversarial power — Trump — has stripped the mainstream press of its cloak of neutrality, exposing the allegiances animating its coverage
The fact is that all fact-checking and reporting performs some sort of advocacy work; the urgency and explicitness of that work depends on whose behalf it’s performed. The mainstream press’s desperate deployment of “fake news” as a bogeyman began when it was unexpectedly pushed into the ring against a competing far-right narrative it could no longer scoff at. It was forced to defend its conventions, which define truth in terms established by the ostensibly meritocratic capitalist order. The alternative press, in contrast, has long understood journalistic duty as part of a broader and more dire struggle to mitigate the harm of threatening narratives by putting forth its own.
The historical record shows that the reporting and fact-checking of alternative presses were done to protect the well-being of their constituents when their mainstream counterparts were reporting distortions. Black- and brown-owned newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries counterbalanced more influential white-owned papers that were often responsible for inciting violence against nonwhites. In one example, described by Juan González and Joseph Torres in News for All the People, the black-owned St. Louis Argus in 1917 disputed the account provided by the white-owned St. Louis Republic of an incident in which police officers were killed by black locals. The Republic and similar papers painted it as part of a plot for insurrection; the Argus, however, reported that black witnesses said the officers had failed to identify themselves as police and were shot as presumed terrorists. This didn’t prevent the more widely read accounts from fomenting whites “sweeping into black neighborhoods in a rampage of arson and gunfire,” lynching and shooting and clubbing possibly dozens of black people.
Newspapers outside the mainstream often took an active role in resisting such oppression. In response to an epidemic of lynchings and other violence against Mexicans in Texas, the influential border paper La Crónica organized a historic gathering of Tejano leaders in 1911, which became a starting point for future organizing in the state. The meeting was covered in depth by Spanish-language newspapers, but wealthier publications like the Houston Post and the San Antonio Express gave it scant and racist coverage, with the latter remarking that its principal aim was “the enlightenment and elevation of the Mexican element in the State of Texas.” Fake news, by any measure: The event in actuality marked a turning point for Mexican resistance to injustice in Texas, and La Crónica provided resources and ongoing coverage to organizers’ efforts.
Throughout history and into the present, the alternative press hasn’t had the financial clout to counter establishment positions and assumptions on a grand scale. The president and his minions, for better or worse, did, and their systematic assault on mainstream media’s credibility seemed like it might open space for other kinds of press to gather influence. But a few months into Trump’s reign, it appears that the mainstream press’s power has been buttressed by leakers inside the White House and national intelligence agencies, who are using the administration’s real and imagined ties to Russia to undermine his rule. The far-right media ecosystem has fought back, which brings into sharper focus who is left out of this ongoing press war over the truth. This includes the poor, the incarcerated, and everybody else living on the margins who will continue to be underserved and even maligned by a mainstream media that cannot help but replicate the perspectives of its owners. “Fake news” fights over facts and leaks tell us nothing about the desperate reality that fuels popular demagoguery and does little to discourage the oppression and persecution that stems from it.
If the rising appeal of populists — on both the left and right — is any indication, the corporate press has a slim chance of definitively winning this fight because it would have to defend the assumptions of an economic order that is losing support. It cannot counter the far right with a competing political vision, based on a more equitable society, without threatening the power of its owners. The malleable future of the post-truth era belongs to those who can best articulate a vision of an alternative world, built on a foundation of alternative narrative fashioned from alternative facts. Just as we dismissed the president’s claim that he alone could fix America, so too should we reject the mainstream media’s insinuation that we would be imperiled without it in its current form. Every piece of journalism presents an arrangement of facts packaged within and communicated through a defined consensus of values. That consensus must be negotiated constantly among each of us, not the tiny class of people sitting on top of the world.