What is fake news? I tried to boil down a definition to a catchphrase: Fake news trumps truth.
But that’s snarky. And apparently it won’t do.
In a column earlier this month, the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan (previously the public editor of the New York Times) argued that “fake news” has been co-opted by the right and its real meaning—”deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public”—has been lost.
Lost, apparently, to the schoolyard retort of I know you are, but what am I? Now, said Sullivan, it means “a number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”
Observer doesn’t like to hear doesn’t work all that well as a concept. But aside from that, Sullivan has a point. The ease with which the right has turned “fake news” against its enemies is evidence that the term had shaky underpinnings from the get-go. But it’s stronger evidence of the ground the right has conceded. There was a time when Donald Trump and his people would say things and insist they were true. Now they settle for pouting that evidence to the contrary is just “fake news.”
Or they concede even more ground than that. When Chuck Todd of Meet the Press asked Trump aide Kellyanne Conway to explain why White House news secretary Sean Spicer would belligerently insist that Trump had enjoyed the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration”—a claim contradicted by photos of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration—Conway didn’t say those photos were fake facts. No, she explained instead that Spicer was privy to “alternative facts.”
In other words, facts unflattering to Trump, be they true or fake, aren’t the only facts to be had. Somewhere, in a dimension to which the president has access, there are others. Don’t laugh! Scientists tell us 95 percent of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy. This darkness constitutes an alternative reality that’s supposedly undetectable; but if anyone could tap into it, it’s the White House.
It’s said that Eskimos, out of necessity and familiarity, have a hundred words that mean snow. Likewise, America has about as many terms that mean ain’t so. Fake news was a pretty good one, but it’s had its day and there are so many others. For instance, the first two paragraphs of the NBC News story on the Conway-Todd exchange contained, in addition to the promising newcomer “alternative facts,” these passages referencing Spicer: “inaccurately described,” “issued multiple falsehoods,” and “declaring erroneously.” Complete bullshit remains out of bounds.
Critics on the left who want the media to kick over all restraints and start screaming Lies, lies, lies! should stand down. Savor language, in all its nuances. Language favors whoever knows how to use it.