How "Fake News" Became Meaningless

Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP
Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Let’s talk about fake news. Are you excited? I am! (Actually I’m not. That claim was fake news.)


Long ago, in days of yore (2016), America came gradually to mainstream awareness that a shadowy sector of hucksters and frauds—possibly, according to some reports, including or in the employ of elements of the Russian government—had built an industry out of creating flamboyant, inflammatory falsehoods packaged to seem like credible news stories and pumping these into Facebook. There they had a troubling tendency to circulate like wildfire among people either A) not up to the task of judging the factual accuracy of what was presented, in its packaging, to look like credible reported news; B) conditioned by the exigencies of media, politics, and public education to find it plausible that an ideologically sympathetic outlet they’d never previously heard of could be reporting incredibly scandalous news—like for example that high-ranking members of a major-party political campaign could be running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor—that other major outlets of less sympathetic bent and/or nefarious loyalties would entirely ignore; and/or C) ideologically/tribally disposed to believe outrageous claims about opposite-party figures they already despise.

In substance, these aren’t so different from those ludicrous conspiranoia chain emails your survivalist uncle used to forward to everybody in the family. The problem is that, thanks to the traits of Facebook—most particularly, its toxic algorithmic agnosticism about the substance and credibility of the news (or “news”) stories it promotes—they spread a lot more quickly and are granted an extra veneer of believability by their appearing right alongside actual news reporting in people’s news feeds. Thus, they dupe a hell of a lot more people than those old emails did. You can imagine why this is very bad, if you generally agree with the proposition that one of the very basic things a society needs in order to function and/or qualify as a society is a broadly agreed-upon set of facts about what’s going on in the world, even if it may host a wide variety of ideas about what those facts mean or what should be done about them.

So. Let’s get to the next part. The next part concerns the term “fake news.” This is a different issue from the above issue, even though the term “fake news” was invented to describe that above issue. It’s a different issue because, in a nutshell, liberals are stupid.

Here is what I mean. You could call these viral Facebook falsehoods hoaxes, and probably should, because that’s what they are; they share their lineage with the Cardiff giant and the alien autopsy and “Hack Heaven” and the moon landing (just kidding!). Unfortunately, in the rush to create a name for a trend, both the mainstream media and liberals—do your qualming about that use of the word “and” down below in the comments—horrified by the role these monstrosities played in the rise of Donald Trump, lit upon the term “fake news” to describe them. And thereby played themselves.

The problem, here, is that the cynical conservative playbook for the past 35 years or more has been to label the media, broadly, as a biased institution that knowingly prints slanted news for the purpose of advancing a left-wing agenda for the United States. In effect, the right wing has been calling virtually every published news story whose revelations it found inconvenient fake news for whole actual decades. This is no small part of the reason why these viral Facebook hoaxes propagate so smoothly among right-wingers in the first place! For as long as I have been alive, America’s right wing has been telling itself that any news story based on a set of facts they do not like—like, oh just to grab a random example, that they spent the 2016 election season duping each other on Facebook en masse with a set of insane lies ginned up by pimply gamer dipshits in Odessa or wherever—or seeming to support a conclusion they find distasteful is self-evidently false and biased. At this point it is an actual tenet of American conservatism: This news story is not compatible with my beliefs, therefore it is biased, therefore it is not credible.

And so, as soon as the frantic liberal handwringing over the spooky “fake news” scourge—a category label seeming to indicate something new and different from outright hoaxes, and purportedly engineered to land Donald Trump in the White House—began, what entirely predictable and inevitable thing did Trump and his legions of gibbering online masturbators do? They co-opted the term! Of fucking course they did.


Here, here’s Trump himself, in his first press conference as the president-elect, shutting down pushy, adversarial questioning from a CNN reporter by calling his organization “fake news”:

Of fucking course.

Because here is the thing. You can brush off an adversarial reporter in a press conference by calling CNN a “hoax,” if you want, but it doesn’t make any sense, and anyway it has no rhetorical value. CNN may be many things—clumsy, cringing, craven, clueless, willing to issue calls to media solidarity for its own benefit while also throwing less putatively respectable media organizations right the fuck under the bus, frequently embarrassing—but it manifestly is not a “hoax,” and nobody is all that worried about “hoaxes” at the moment. But calling the organization “fake news”—hard on the heels of all this pearl-clutching over this dangerous new “fake news” thing—covers multiple bases at once.


For one thing, less importantly, this panders to Trump’s base, who elected Trump in no small part because he does not even have to hold his nose while saying out loud the very dumb false shit they believe. But much more importantly, it effectively erases all distinctions between a real and dangerous threat to the public—the wild, heretofore unchecked proliferation and credulous adoption on the world’s most powerful social media network of outright bullshit masquerading as reported news—and something quite different—critical and accurate media coverage of the incoming administration—that is of tremendous actual value to the public. CNN’s reporter doing (a maybe somewhat grandstand-y but nonetheless entirely responsible rendition of) his job at a press conference—attempting to ask a question, on camera and live to millions of viewers, which Trump could answer exactly as truthfully as he saw fit—is, in the explicit formulation of the incoming president of the United States, engaged in the same behavior as the guy who wrote “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge Of Allegiance In Schools Nationwide.”

Maybe even more importantly, this use turns the term itself—“fake news”—into a politicized rhetorical tool, a hieroglyph signaling wised-up skepticism about the dang mainstream media, rendering the phrase, if not the entire institution of the press, functionally useless.


Okay. So. Now we’re caught up to, uh, yesterday. Yesterday, the New York Times published a story titled “‘Learning Curve’ As Rick Perry Pursues a Job He Initially Misunderstood.” The story’s key claim is that Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Energy, former Texas governor Rick Perry, initially did not know what the Department of Energy is or what its secretary does, believing the job to be, as the Times had it, “a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state,” when actually the job’s primary concerns are the development and security of America’s nuclear arsenal.


As you might guess, the story has occasioned much rich clowning around the media and broader internet: of Trump, for picking such a dunce to head a cabinet department, and of Perry, both for not knowing what the Department of Energy does and for the greater sin of once having called for its abolition despite apparently not having known what it did (or, uh, what its name was) at the time.

As you might also guess, the story has come in for some criticism, not all of it unwarranted. It has some problems. None of the story’s first three paragraphs provide any attribution—either via direct quote or in the “sources said” vein—for the claim in the lead that Perry misunderstood the nature of the energy secretary job, leaving that claim to appear to rest on the following quote from Republican operative and energy lobbyist Michael McKenna in the fourth paragraph:

“If you asked him on that first day he said yes, he would have said, ‘I want to be an advocate for energy [....] If you asked him now, he’d say, ‘I’m serious about the challenges facing the nuclear complex.’ It’s been a learning curve.”


McKenna himself has told the Daily Caller that the Times piece misinterprets that quote; but then again of course he would, and anyway he doesn’t dispute that he said those words in that order. In any case, that one quote, from a former campaign bozo and lobbyist apparently not affiliated with Perry or the transition team in any official capacity at the time he gave it, would seem to be a pretty flimsy basis for the (otherwise hilariously plausible) claim that Perry literally did not know what the Department of Energy is until after he’d decided to pursue the job of running it.

Nowhere else in the Times piece do any further quotes or sources saids support the claim about Perry misunderstanding the job. In fact, nowhere else does the Times piece seem interested in demonstrating that Perry misunderstood the nature of the job at all. Apart from the first two paragraphs, it is pretty much entirely a story about whether Perry is qualified for the job, which is a separate question; he can of course understand the job very well and still be unqualified to hold it.


And the Times article doesn’t even do all that good a job of making that case (which should be a slam dunk, because Perry is a halfwit and shouldn’t be trusted to operate a fucking Slurpee dispenser), either. It performs the standard Times two-step, giving quotes to party flacks making the manifestly absurd argument that this inadequate doofus actually is up to the job of running the Department of Energy, while the obvious and indisputable counterargument is made only by the article’s own ineffectual interstitial qualming:

But as governor, he had no role in running [the Department of Energy facility that happens to be in Texas and which various shameless GOP mouthpieces would have you believe thus qualifies a person who did no more than share America’s second-largest state with it to be in charge of the most powerful arsenal of death bombs in the history of humankind].


All of which is to say, it’s not a good story! It takes an airtight premise (that Rick fucking Perry is not qualified to run the U.S. Department of Energy, which is obviously true and can be stated as fact) and a slightly less airtight but still eminently defensible one (that Perry—and, indeed, probably Trump himself—didn’t really know what the U.S. Department of Energy is and does when both of them decided Rick Perry should run it) and bungles them with a combination of performative evenhandedness and the choice to foreground the latter premise without having gathered strong evidence to support it. It’s botched and fucked-up and accomplishes nothing. Put it in the trash.

But here are some things it is not:

  • Fake news
  • A rumor
  • A “fake-news rumor”

Today New York magazine published an exegesis of the Times story, intially under the headline “The Times May Have Launched a Fake-News Rumor About Rick Perry.”


The story of Rick Perry, a moron who in all likelihood knots his fingers into his shoelaces more than twice per week, being unqualified to run the Department of Energy and probably not even having had all that clear an idea what it does at the time he agreed to seek the job, is not fake news. It is a true story, which the Times has failed to tell effectively. Calling it “fake news” does Perry and the Trump transition effort the immense favor of implying that, because the Times has failed to present this story in a thorough and convincing way, that must mean that its opposite—Rick Perry being a cool and good choice to handle the security of many thousands of nuclear fucking bombs—is true. It’s not! Calling it “fake news” is a category error that conflates a shortcoming in reporting/writing/editing with a hoax.

At some point over the last six hours somebody at NYMag got wise to this; the headline now reads “The Times May Have Launched a False Rumor About Rick Perry (Updated).” But the damage is done: New York Magazine has cooperated in placing the insufficient reporting of a fine and true story about the incompetence and/or flamboyant bad faith of the incoming administration in a category alongside the deliberately untruthful viral post back in the autumn alleging warehouses filled with fraudulent Clinton votes. But more important than the choice to use of the phrase “fake-news rumor” is the disease that animated it: the impulse among a certain kind of liberal journalist to perform virtuous broadmindedness—So you see, it is both sides that are bedeviled by the scourge of fake news, and therefore not I, who belong to neither!—at all costs, up to and including rolling other journalists out in front of Donald Trump’s bus. To care mainly about being seen as the adults in the room, even if the room is on fire. Of all American media’s bad habits and weaknesses, this one is the friendliest to Trump and the craven idiots sharing his clown car, and therefore the most dangerous to the public.


This has been the story of how Donald Trump co-opted a stupid made-up media buzzword and thus assimilated smarmy liberal journalists into the work of delegitimizing their own profession. Don’t worry, I’m sure I have fixed it with this snide intra-media blog post. And just in time for the inauguration!