“Fake News” Debacle Shows That Media Needs to Earn Trust, Not Police Speech

Recent stories about internet-enabled “fake news” turned a discussion about fact-checking in the digital age into an indictment of the objectivity of “real news.” News outlets not only reported on the phenomenon, but took steps to actively combat it. The New York Times and The Huffington Post created their own primers on fake news and how it spreads. One communications and media professor went so far as to create a widely-distributed list of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical ‘News’ Sources,” featuring conservative sites like Breitbart, The Daily Wire, and The Blaze alongside farcical ones like The Onion. Others noted, of course, that grouping all those categories into one list was itself a farce.

When The Washington Post chimed in by tying fake news to Russian propaganda, the outrage spread even further. The Post cited a little-known group purporting to identify Russian-influenced sites, but did not identify its credentials. This led to charges that it was promulgating a dubious “McCarthyite blacklist” to shut down opposing viewpoints.

It is indeed troubling that the “fake news” frenzy has become an opportunity for news organizations to broadly question the very legitimacy of some sources based on subjective criteria beyond basic truthfulness. To be sure, the internet has enabled the quick dissemination of rumors and sketchy information, and the traditional role of the media has been to objectively report the truth. However, Americans’ collapsing faith in newspapers – the quintessential form of traditional media – has indicated that traditional news is also falling short.

Despite this, large media institutions have neglected to re-examine their own biases while playing the role of Speech Cop. Some major newspapers even managed to openly dismiss opposing views while simultaneously claiming to promote an open exchange of ideas. When comedy shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Saturday Night Live (programs which themselves might qualify as fake news) poked fun at those who shut out uncomfortably contrarian opinions, The Guardian responded by offering a list of outlets to “help liberal readers” break out of the bubble. But the paper just couldn’t help but indulge in a heavy-handed attack on those outlets’ legitimacy.

While describing Reason magazine, for example, The Guardian didn’t even bother to make its biases appear subtle:

Yes, it habitually shills for nasty industries like big oil and big tobacco. Yes, libertarian connections with the far right, their support for a brutal economic doctrine, and preparedness to get into bed with the worst reactionaries mean that we will never see eye to eye. But already some writers at Reason are doing good work exposing the authoritarian instincts of Trump and his lieutenants like Jeff Sessions, and playing host to some much-needed self-criticism on the American right.

It’s as if this backhanded praise was going to negate the fact that it was based on Reason’s ability to bash the same ideological opponents from a different perspective, or that the author had flatly ruled out the possibility that Reason could change his mind on even a single subject.

The failure of media organizations to temper or even acknowledge their own presumptions speaks to the need for self-reflection. They should not busy themselves with curating other news sources and banishing the unworthy from public discussion. Responding to individual stories or commentary is one thing, but readers will not categorically reject popular media sources without compelling reasoning. Unfortunately, that requires credibility – and insisting that you are a bastion of objectivity despite evidence to the contrary is not a formula for trustworthiness. Growing skepticism of traditional media has, in many respects, propelled the popularity of dubious sources in the first place.

It is folly for mainstream media outlets to try and objectively police subjective speech – just as it is folly for government to suppress political speech (via excessive campaign finance laws, for example). Debates about free speech should not focus on what outlets can be trusted or what voices are “right,” but should also encompass the broader culture of the free exchange of ideas – which, in the internet age, means adapting to an unprecedented amount of information. This applies even to speech outside media organizations, which is, after all, protected by the same First Amendment.

The answer to changing media appetites is not restricting, regulating, or excluding sources based on subjective criteria, but earning the trust of the public with quality and objectivity. In short, if media outlets really want to stop “fake news,” they should make real news better.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.