So does the Washington Post: Just for the record, we never discuss our private conversations with the Washington Post's Paul Farhi, even though, some years ago, one such conversation occurred.
Whatever! This morning, Farhi has started getting it right—and so has the Washington Post. We refer to the analysis piece on the paper's front page, an analysis piece which appears beneath these hard-copy headlines:
Misinformation enters mainstream with Trump"Questionable" contentions? Some editor may have started getting cold feet in composing that sub-headline, and in composing the weaker headlines which now appear on line.
Sources come in from fringe to help perpetuate questionable contentions
One example: "Thanks to Trump, fringe news enters the mainstream"
"Fringe news?" "Questionable contentions?" In his report, Farhi discusses claims by Candidate Trump which he describes as false.
He writes about Candidate Trump's "non-facts," about his "inaccurate statements," about the "misinformation" he has helped promote. He even writes about this disgraceful episode—an episode the mainstream press has almost completely avoided in the six months since Trump launched his astounding campaign:
FARHI (12/12/15): Trump’s most famously false contention, of course, was his long, pre-campaign embrace of “birtherism,” the notion that Obama wasn’t born on American soil and is therefore ineligible to be president. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, including a birth certificate issued in Hawaii and a contemporaneous newspaper birth announcement, birther sites—from Birthers.org to Obamabirthbook.com—are strewn across the Internet, actively promoting a debunked thesis.Those paragraphs don't begin to do justice to the sweep of Trump's disgraceful behavior in 2011 and 2012, which remains unexamined and unexplained. But they at least start to review that history—and Farhi refers to a "false contention," not to a "questionable" claim.
Accurate or not, the constant sowing of doubt has had a cumulative effect: Some 20 percent of people in a recent CNN/ORC poll said they believe Obama was born outside the country; 29 percent (and 43 percent of Republicans) said they believe Obama is a Muslim despite Obama’s profession of the Christian faith.
Whatever! For many years, we have been asking, begging, pleading for this kind of front-page reporting. We have said it again and again:
When major figures spread misinformation on a widespread basis, that behavior is news in itself. It should be reported as such.
Back in the day, we were talking about figures like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Farhi writes about Candidate Trump and his crackpot muse, Alex Jones. But this is a very important type of front-page news report. Major newspapers like the Post should do more of this type of reporting—and it should be done on those papers' front pages.
Farhi is off to a good start today. Let's note some imperfections:
First, a relatively minor point. It drives us crazy when journalists take it upon themselves to downplay the size of misconduct:
FARHI: Trump isn’t the first politician with a tenuous grasp of the facts, of course. But he may be the first politician to exploit both widespread, bipartisan distrust of conventional news sources and the alternative reality provided by the digital grass roots, from sites such as Jones’s Infowars to chain emails to social media.Doggone it! In his original statement, Trump actually said that he saw "thousands and thousands" of Muslims behaving that way.
For example, Trump’s recent evidence-free assertion that “thousands” of Muslim Americans in New Jersey celebrated the fall of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 parallels stories that have appeared in various forms in chain emails and elsewhere on the Web for years.
"Thousands and thousands" is more than mere "thousands." Why do we choose to reduce the size of a misstatement that way?
A second note:
At one point, Farhi seems to suggest that misinformation and disinformation are only spread on the right. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. Over here in our own tribe, we've been developing our own favorite bogus statistics and our own preferred misleading accounts of certain major events.
Those efforts at fudge are important too. They too may belong on major newspapers' front pages.
A third complaint came into clearest focus at the end of Farhi's report. In this passage, Farhi discusses the death of journalistic gatekeepers—but he fudges another key point:
FARHI: Hemsley, the co-author of “Going Viral,” about the rapid spread of information, said the days when the nation had “a somewhat unifying story” from newspapers and the leading TV news networks are gone. Nowadays, people tend to pick their own news, and like-minded social contacts, which tends to reinforce their beliefs rather than challenge them.According to Farhi's sources, "the days when the nation had 'a somewhat unifying story' from newspapers and the leading TV news networks are gone." As a result, "facts may be losing their value in today's world."
This makes it increasingly difficult to dislodge misinformation, he said. Good information can still drive out bad, but usually only when “the truth is sexier than the lie.”
“Facts may be undervalued or losing their value in today’s world,” said Robert Mason, a University of Washington professor who has researched the spread of false information. “If you say it loud enough or long enough, people will believe it. That’s okay in theory, but when people act on it, that’s a problem."
Those statement are basically true, of course. That said, that passage fudges another key point—at certain times in the past thirty years, misinformation and disinformation have flowed, in major ways, directly from the mainstream press corps' "unifying stories."
That was certainly true in the War Against Gore, which Farhi's newspaper helped invent and maintain from March 1999 right through the November 2000 election. We aren't likely to read about the reams of bogus statements and claims which constituted that war's "unifying stories," not even from someone like Farhi.
Final point: Information which gets disappeared is also part of this larger story. There are various important facts which our big newspapers tend to avoid like the plague. When basic facts are widely withheld, that produces a disabling type of misinformation too.
Misinformation can take many forms. That said, Alex Jones and Candidate Trump provide a good place to start in an attempt at pushback.
At any rate, "misinformation" has reached the headlines on the Washington Post's front page! Even after all these years, your incomparable DAILY HOWLER just keeps cranking out those results!