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Elizabeth Cook: News is real

President Donald Trump says the media is dishonest. How do we know Trump says that? Because the media keeps telling us.

Does anyone get the irony of that?   

“I have a running war with the media,” Trump said at the CIA the day after his inauguration. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

Yet the media keep reporting virtually everything he says. How dishonest is that?

A line in the movie “Sweet Home Alabama” seems appropriate here. Candice Bergen, playing the mayor of New York, goes on the attack when her son gets dumped at the altar. The mayor lights into the would-be bride: “I’ve never met anyone so manipulative, so deceitful … and I’m in politics.”

The bride is a fashion designer, not a journalist. But the punchline is the important part — “and I’m in politics.

A politician criticizing journalists? That’s a tale as old as time.

Many reporters are more comfortable with criticism than compliments from public officials. The press is supposed to be a watchdog on government. Excessive praise could signal a cozy relationship and compromised objectivity. When it comes to the media and public officials, a little distance is a good thing. Skepticism is healthy.

For Trump and the major media, the distance has stretched into a yawning abyss.

But the president reaches across from time to time, according to the Associated Press:

When aides ushered reporters out of a Roosevelt Room event as a union leader began praising Trump’s inaugural address, the president called out: “Hey, press, get back in here.”

With a fire hose of information gushing out across all platforms, how do you decide whom to believe?

Several years ago, former journalist John H. McManus wrote a useful book, “Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast and on the Wild Web.” Here’s his SMELL test:

Source: Does the story identify sources, or does it cite unnamed individuals?   

Motivation: What is the source’s motivation? Some clearly have an angle.

Evidence: What information is there to back up the central claim?

Logic: Does the story make sense?

Left out: A half-truth can be the same as a lie. What is left out of the story?

Melissa Zimdars, a professor of media and communication at Merrimack College, has posted a list online that could be considered a smell test for the digital age: “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.” (You can Google “Zimdars” to find it.)

Snopes.com is also a good place to check out questionable stories.

We all have a tendency to hang out with like-minded people. We also gravitate toward news sources and commentators who confirm our own biases.

Beware of people who know how to exploit that tendency — like the young Davidson College grad who made $5,000 off a concocted story about thousands of fraudulent ballots supposedly found in an Ohio warehouse. The story was a complete fabrication, but by the time he got called on it and removed the article from his website, millions had read and believed his story.

The seed was planted: “fraudulent ballots.”

The way information overload works, after a while you remember what you’ve heard and read, but not where the information came from. It all meshes into your brain’s web of knowledge and beliefs.

And so you tell someone at the office, “Did you hear about all those fraudulent ballots?”

The next time you hear someone call a report “fake news,” question it. If the report is indeed fake, it’s not news at all; it’s fiction. There’s a difference between disliking a story and discovering that it has been concocted.

“Fake news” is like “alternate facts” — terms meant to sow confusion. They sound like something from the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s “1984.” War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. News is fake.

Which brings us to today’s word: truthiness. Stephen Colbert coined that one several years ago for reports that are not based in truth — and may even contradict known facts — but they just feel right.

News — like facts — may not feel right when it doesn’t reinforce your beliefs. If you’re a Clinton supporter, you didn’t like hearing about the FBI’s investigation of her email server. If you’re a Trump supporter, you didn’t like hearing the Billy Bush interview. But both things happened, the investigation and the interview, and you have a right to know about them.

News is real, even if it makes someone unhappy — even if that someone is president of the United States.


Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.



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