The U.S. political and cultural left came to power in 2008 and spent eight years drinking the fruits of triumph. It woke up on the morning after Election Day, Nov. 8, with an awful hangover and spent the following month blaming every group except itself for a Donald Trump headache.
Chief among the culprits, according to prominent mediacrats: “fake news.” Criticism of lies on websites and press rags reached a crescendo on Dec. 8 when Hillary Clinton herself decried the “epidemic” of “malicious false -propaganda.” She had a point: The same space alien who purportedly counseled Newt Gingrich in 1995 later became her lover, according to Weekly World News.
But seriously, the proliferation of propaganda is a problem. Throughout 2016 the facts of the Obama administration screamed failure. It was both wrong and unnecessary to invent fiction. The third Gospel begins with Luke, the first Christian journalist, stressing that he had followed events closely, understood the importance of eyewitnesses, and was determined to write an orderly account. We should go and do likewise: Passing along internet lies is bearing false witness.
Hillary Clinton, who during the month before the election had supposedly suffered multiple strokes and developed multiple sclerosis, was understandably irritated. Yes, we should watch for Russian finagling in social media. Still, employment of a government or Google sledgehammer to crush “fake news” could also do away with dissent from politically -correct positions regarding abortion, climate change, evolution, LGBT issues, and much else.
We’ve heard since the election that accurate news flow was much better before the advent of social media: In those good old days gatekeepers at TV networks and major newspapers did not allow error to proliferate. Well, I grew up in those good old days, and they were terrible. Two examples from a half-century ago:
• Peter Braestrup in his 1977 book, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, showed that the Tet offensive by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army was a colossal failure resulting in the destruction of the former and heavy casualties among the latter. But CBS’ Walter Cronkite (then “the most trusted man in America”) and other top dogs declared the offensive an American defeat.
• The advent of penicillin led to a decline in abortion-related maternal deaths from 5,000 per year during the 1930s to perhaps 300 (officially, 160) in 1967. Yet 1960s pro-abortion leaders like Dr. Bernard Nathanson gave “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year” as the current figure, and leading newspapers used that number to promote abortion legalization as a way to stop “back-alley abortions.” Nathanson, after coming to Christ and opposition to abortion, said, “I knew the figures were totally false, but they were ‘useful.’”
Fake news like that has long-term consequences. A century ago British propagandists hyped news of German atrocities in Belgium. Lies led some during World War II to think wrongly that stories of German genocide against Jews were also exaggerated.
Big media in the 21st century continue to broadcast and publish fake news. Numerous studies and books by disillusioned former insiders such as Bernard Goldberg document the -ideological bias that leads journalists to suspend skepticism. Two specific examples:
• Stephanie Gutmann in The Other War shows how (to choose just one example) The New York Times and The Associated Press showed a bloodied man apparently beaten by a rage-filled soldier and labeled it “a Palestinian and an Israeli soldier,” but it was actually a photo of an Israeli kicked and stabbed by Palestinians and rescued by a policeman (see “Photographic negatives,” March 4, 2006).
• Three decades ago Harvard’s Stephen Gould quipped that the lack of transitional forms—evidence for macroevolution, one kind of animal in the process of turning into another—was “the trade secret of paleontology.” That’s still true, but die-hard Darwinians keep coming up with fake news of intermediate forms, such as purported “missing links” between ape and man. PBS in 2009 acknowledged the existence of only a “fragmentary fossil record” but claimed we now have “a very solid general picture of human evolution.”