Why Fake News Grows



It is not the Russians. It is not just a disrupted media business model. It is not lowbrow opioid addicts from middle America without jobs who cannot handle the truth provided by home delivery of the The New York Times. The fertile soil of fake news is sloppy journalism.

Mrs. Meyers in 1978 taught me high school journalism.  She was a silver haired fox with a Ben Bradlee rapier tongue. Her first husband died in the Pacific in World War II. She would tell his story so we would remember why we had a First Amendment. As a student journalist you wanted her approval even as you feared her standards.

The smile and praise flowed freely when you wrote a great article or sold an ad in the Bagpipe. But when I was sloppy, as I was on a piece about National Merit Scholars, she stuck the knife into my inner laziness and poured it out on the editing room floor.

It was not the story I wanted. I had done a cursory interview. I had not been curious. So, the story was not accurate. It was not because I was biased. It was not because I had a cause or ideology infecting my objectivity. I just had not shown up to do the work.

I am honored to sit on a few boards and a commission. Fairly routinely local press around the state will write about our work. But, the big gorilla in the state only covers our meetings when there is controversy.

They tend to show up with the crowds. The local papers cover us meeting to meeting, but not the state’s supposed paper of record. And since it has no baseline, at least some of its reporters have no way of knowing what we actually do.

A couple of years ago we had a hearing where a controversial experiment was mentioned. Another meeting where the public and the agency discussed the experiment. Then a large public meeting where based on mounds of science we made a decision.

The paper showed up for the last meeting and had not read the science in the record. How do I know? Because when I encountered the reporter in a break in the final meeting he was shocked when I mentioned the prior hearings and the record. But it did not matter, because he told me he had to leave before the second half of that day’s hearing and vote.

He was not there for the motion, the debate, or the vote.

But none of that stopped him from writing a comprehensive story. It was if he had attended all the hearings and read the record. He never actually claimed that he had done the work. It was just the article’s impression.

Into this fertile soil enriched by the manure of click-bait sloth, Russia and other sources poured their propaganda in 2016. The fertile soil not of bias or bad economics, but ordinary negligence. The press must stop excusing itself. When it surrenders its credibility for profits or politics, it creates the conditions for propagandist success.

Walter Cronkite was in a B-17 over Germany, was in a glider that went into Holland with the airborne, and covered the Battle of the Bulge on foot in WWII. There was no fake news because Cronkite and in particular CBS News practiced in depth sustained reporting.

And America accepted Cronkite as the most trusted man in the country knowing he was a liberal.  Because the country knew he and CBS did the work to uncover the truth and then accurately reported it. And they clearly marked editorials as editorials, not “analysis” published on the front page.

Yes, CBS had the money. Yes, the competition was different. Yes, it was a different America.

But so what? If you do not have the money to do the work, do not write the story. Mrs. Meyers never taught us that if we did not sell enough advertising it was okay to turn in a shoddy story.

Because if a journalist does not do the work but writes the story, is not that Fake News too?



  1. Good piece, John. Thank you.

    There is no question that laziness and lack of curiousity contribute the fake news problem. It plays a role in the generation of the stories AND their dissemination. I wonder if they are worth looking at separately.

    Regarding generating stories, the institutional producers are motivated by revenue thus by ratings/clicks/circulation. If we (the readers) primarily valued factual accuracy/truth, fake news would be a much less significant issue. However, many of us seem to place a high value on bias confirmation. The most financial successful news network (Fox News) is also widely regarded as the most partisan. I’ve often been surprised at the level of effort that certain Fox News programs put into weaving narratives that contradict facts and common sense but are just credible enough to fall with the range of their audience’s willing suspension of disbelief and fit their bias. Whatever you say about Hannity, it seems clear there is a great deal of effort put into producing the show. Liberal-biased outlets are guilty of the same.

    But to your point, there are plenty of biased “sources” for stories that are lazy in just pumping out obvious tripe.

    Much of the dissemination of fake news is by online shares and retweets. That seems to be where laziness makes a big contribution. Many of us have had the xoweience if reading a post a friend sharesa and thinking it suspicious. A few seconds/clicks can usually uncover whether the claims is true or not, yet people (at time, me too) don’t bother. Perhaps that could be a fruitful area to combat the spread of fake news.

    • Thanks Vince. I don’t watch cable tv, so I can’t comment on FOX, CNN, MSNBC. When I was sick in bed for months in 2016 and watching tv because what else could I do, I decided they were not truly journalism. Really more like entertainment and specifically reality tv.

      In some ways those networks got the President that matches their journalism.

      I’m much happier and better informed b/c there are plenty of good news sources on-line where bias and origin of the stories are transparent.

      My advice is avoid the two partisan cable channels and the sensationalist channel (CNN). You’ll feel a lot better.

      • The news sources I rely on are primarily the WSJ, NYT, WaPo and Boston Globe, in that order. I use CNN, Fox, FB and Twitter to understand the priorities and perspectives of the left and right as most Americans consume and understand them (I rarely watch MSNBC). CNN is also where I go when a new story breaks to understand the basic facts – which I find they can convey effectively but not without some spin which must be filtered out.

        I feel strongly that to truly understand the dynamics of the ebb and flow of news, it’s consumption and impact on our national discourse, one must observe (with appropriate filters) what is going on in the media most people use to get their “news,” and today that is TV and social media.

        I appreciate that I have much more time to consume and evaluate news than the average American. That said, I am keenly interested in what may be done to incent people to be more conscientious in digesting what they get so that our discourse is more fact based. It does seem that folks don’t put much value on that, beginning with our leaders.


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