The Fake News And The News That's Fake

It seems that Hillary's supporters just can't accept that she lost because she was a terrible candidate -- a worse candidate even than Donald Trump!  So the election must have been stolen from her by some fraudsters or crooks.  Russian hackers!  James Comey!  And now the latest, "fake news."

I follow the news rather closely, and yet somehow this whole "fake news" thing never even rose to my attention until after the election was over.  Now that it seems to be the big thing, I've gone looking for some of it to see if it could really have been anything important in the election.  It does seem that some completely made-up stories circulated widely on social media platforms like Facebook, often with an origin that no one can seem to trace, and other times with origins at sites with names and looks that seem real but are counterfeit.  Many of these "fake news" stories appeared in the weeks and months prior to the election.

Then of course, there is another, closely-related category.  These are the stories that have circulated in the actual mainstream media, with the full weight of their authority and supposed fact-checking, but with no more relation to truth or reality than the "fake news."  Call this second category the "news that is fake."  Many such stories have also circulated at times carefully calculated to attempt to influence a political result.  

I thought it might be fun to compare some examples of the "fake news" to other examples of the "news that is fake."  See which you think are more consequential.

An analysis at Buzzfeed on November 16 finds the following to be the top five "fake news" stories in the three months prior to the election, ranked by what they call "Facebook engagement."

OK, you have to admit that that's a pretty good list.  On the other hand, I seem to have failed to see any of them at the time.  Maybe that's because I avoid Facebook like the plague.  Meanwhile, let's just pull out a tiny smattering from the category of "news that is fake."  For example:

  • On September 13 the Census Bureau released figures for things like household income and the so-called "poverty rate" for 2015.  According to the report, in a year when GDP had only increased 2.4% over the prior year, median household income had somehow gone up 5.2%, and the poverty rate had gone down a full 1.3%.  These supposed figures, and others in the report, were literally impossible, and should have elicited extreme skepticism from all serious media.  See my post on the subject here.  But instead, the report became the lead story in literally every major media outlet, from the New York Times here, to the Wall Street Journal here, and many others.  Within a day, John Crudele of the New York Post had revealed the reported figures to be an artifact of methodology changes at Census, carefully buried in the report and timed for maximum impact on the election.  None of the sources that had breathlessly parrotted the Census figures ever issued a correction.
  • Whatever you might think about the controversy over supposed man-made global warming, one thing that cannot be disputed is that no connection has been shown between atmospheric warming and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes or floods.  Indeed, the most recent years have seen a remarkable dearth of hurricanes and tornadoes.  In his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week titled "My Unhappy Life As A Climate Heretic," Roger Pielke, Jr. pointed out that "There is scant evidence to indicate that hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought have become more frequent or intense in the U.S. or globally," and noted that even the politicized IPCC has agreed with that conclusion.  And yet over at the New York Times, with reportage on this subject led by climate crusaders Justin Gillis and Coral Davenport, it is complete gospel that global warming causes increases in extreme weather events.  For example, in the run-up to the recent election, an article from September 8 by Davenport linked "climate change" to "extreme weather" and flooding that had just occurred in Louisiana.  Just today, we have another article by Davenport attacking Trump EPA nominee Scott Pruitt and containing this gem:  "Without additional government policies, energy and environmental experts say, the shift from coal, oil and natural gas will not be rapid or substantial enough to stave off the worst impacts of a warming atmosphere, including rising sea levels, more powerful storms, more devastating droughts and food and water shortages."
  • Or, consider the mother of all "news that is fake" stories, the report by Dan Rather and CBS News on September 8, 2004, in the run-up to the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, that Bush had committed certain misconduct, including disobeying a direct order, in connection with his service in the National Guard.  The report was based on obviously forged documents.  Those behind the report, including Rather and his producer Mary Mapes, continued to defend it for years afterward.  Mapes wrote a book defending the story in 2005, and a movie based on that book, titled "Truth," came out in 2015.

If we had all day here, I could come up with another dozen examples just as good.  Is there any doubt that the "news that is fake" category is much more consequential?