Columnist Jay Fleitman: Navigating the problem of fake news

  • White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fields questions from reporters during the daily briefing, Wednesday, July 19, 2017, at the White House in Washington. AP PHOTO/Jacquelyn Martin

Published: 1/7/2019 8:17:39 AM

I remember as a kid in elementary school being taught the importance of newspapers and journalists. They were our guardians, investigating and ferreting out the truth with accuracy and impartiality. They were to us defenders of our democracy and the heart of our freedom of speech. We read the New York Times in school every day as if it were America’s authority on truth. We were even shown how to fold the newspaper so we could read it anywhere. In those innocent times, no one ever would have dreamed of questioning the integrity of the reporting of Walter Cronkite on CBS or the news team of Huntley and Brinkley on NBC. Journalists were a priesthood sworn to an oath of finding the truth, no matter how uncomfortable the story.

I carried this belief well into adulthood, and then I learned better.

In the early 1980s, I was in my training in New York City in diseases of the lungs when the city affiliate of ABC News started running a five-part story on how the city government was endangering the lives of its firemen because it had only one hyperbaric oxygen chamber to treat survivors of smoke inhalation. Science made it clear that the premise of this story was completely untrue — the use of hyperbaric oxygen does not improve the survival of individuals with carbon monoxide poisoning. I was tasked by my department to call the TV news station and suggest the correction. I talked it over directly with the editor in chief of the news station. He listened patiently, and then informed me that he had gotten similar phone calls from several other pulmonary departments throughout New York City. He was, however, going ahead with the story because he had a specialist on hyperbaric oxygen as his lead expert. At the time, this particular researcher was well-known among pulmonary circles for his bogus publications. During that five-part series, not 10 seconds were dedicated to the science that refuted this story.

What is now known as AIDS had just been recognized around the same time. My institution was doing some of the early research on this disease, so we knew what was known, and we knew what was not known, about this infection. There was considerable anxiety in the public at that time; news outlets were running stories to quell the near-panic. People should not worry about catching the illness: You could hold hands, share meals and stay in close contact with a person who was infected. We now know this to be true, but at the time, nobody knew how the disease was transmitted. At my hospital, we found the irresponsibility of the news reporting to be breathtaking. Who knew what risks a casual approach to this disease might entail?

We assumed it was a virus in those times, but certainly nobody had identified the agent. No one had any idea how contagious this disease was, no one knew how slowly or rapidly developing the illness was, and while there were certain populations highly affected by the disease, all of us had seen people outside of those groups presenting with the illness.

It was clear then that on subjects with which I had great familiarity, the news reporting was inaccurate at best or reckless at worst. So then, how do I approach the news on subjects with which I have little direct information or experience?

Through the decades that have followed, I have been a direct witness to many similar examples. I have watched political events or have attended such events, after which the coverage in the news was greatly distorted and at times my experience of this event was unrecognizable in the news story. Always, the direction of the distortion was predictable given the political leanings of the news organization.

So we arrive at the issue of fake news.

There was an opinion piece on these pages in the middle of December written by a journalist who decried the concept of fake news: “It is a tough time to be a journalist, and fake news is to blame. Not because journalists are purveyors of so-called fake news. That’s what the politicians would have you believe. Rather, it’s because the term has become so mainstream and intangible that anything that goes against a person’s preconceived notions or beliefs can be dismissed by calling it fake news.”

So, it is the biases of the reader, rather than the information published or broadcast in the news, that is the source of the falsehoods and distortions. Hardly.

A good recent example of this is the coverage of the immigrant caravan as it approached our southern border. Left-leaning news outlets interviewed women holding hands with their children describing the fear and violence they were escaping in their home countries as the reason why they were seeking asylum. The right-leaning Fox News surveyed the caravan and reported that 90 percent of the members were “military-age” men seeking better employment.

If we accept the logic of the journalist who wrote the column, it is the audiences of those news channels whose preconceived notions identify one story or the other as being fake news. This then would logically suggest that both of those very different depictions by the news outlets of the members of that caravan had to be truthful. Or one or both of those depictions were being distorted.

It is hard to know how to navigate this problem. I read both a left-leaning and right-leaning news source every day and try and read between the lines to see if I can get a sense of what might be accurate. Do I accept this as a reasonable system? Absolutely not. I may as well be reading tea leaves.

However, sometimes the lapses in coverage are so glaring as to be shocking. One such episode: Several years ago, Lois Lerner, an officer of the IRS, was testifying to Congress about her department’s targeting of conservative groups to keep them from participating in the 2012 election. The conservative news channels covered this extensively, and the video of her taking her Fifth Amendment protections throughout her testimony was broadcast throughout this period. On the left-leaning channels, the story was virtually invisible. If she had been a conservative, the outlets on the left would have been bulldogs to a bone.

If you care about having the truth by which to base your opinions, and you think your news source on either side is trustworthy, guess again. You don’t know. 

Jay Fleitman, MD, of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.

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