Essay: Fake News

Sep 15, 2018

"Fake news" has been a common phrase from the White House since President Trump first began his term. However, Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank notes that there is a big difference of claiming something as "fake news" or claiming it as "false" news.

Lank is a former journalist, and he reflects on one of his first lessons about how the world defines news:

Fake news is an oxymoron. One of the favorite talking points of President Trump cannot logically exist. Let me explain: Back in 1971, when I passed a long summer sweltering on the shores of Lake Michigan beginning my graduate journalism studies at Northwestern University, the first assignment of my first class was to come prepared to discuss the nature of news. The object, the professor told us, was to define what news is. So for an hour, a dozen bright young minds explored the subject from every conceivable angle.

Was news the proceedings of the common council, the congressman on the take, the fatal traffic accident down the street, the dalliances of a movie star, the score of last night’s hockey game, a review of a new play, the election or death of a pope, something that is so cute it becomes what is today known as a meme but when I was in college would cause a man to put down his morning paper, hand it over to his wife with a silly grin and say “Hey, Marge, look at this?” These were just a few of the examples we discussed. Our careful attempts to find a definition that covered all of them failed.

Finally, one of my classmates, who had been trained in logic at a Jesuit university, offered this definition: News is whatever an editor says it is. Our professor smiled and nodded, that is what she had been aiming us at all along. And in my subsequent career, I never found a better definition, although as the media world has expanded, I would update it to: News is whatever the gatekeeper of a news site decides to present. It makes no difference if that gatekeeper is an editor at the New York Times, a producer at Fox News or Alex Jones of InfoWars – what each decides to place before the public is news, and therefore cannot be fake news. It can be false news.

But even false news is not fake news because news is what an editor says it is. False news is if they say something that is untrue. It never occurred to me and my fellow grad students that an editor would consciously decide to present false information as news, and in a 40-year career, I never met one who did. That is why people have trust in outlets run by professionally trained journalists. Or did, until President Trump started to assert that things presented as news in outlets he dislikes are fake. But why does President Trump use the word “fake” rather than “false” when referring to as New York Times and CNN?

He does so because if the Times itself is fake, then the unflattering things it presents as news about him can be ignored and vilified. Whether the individual story is true is beside the point. Logically, however, this will not wash -- news is what a gatekeeper selects. If that news is untrue, then a president or anyone else can call it such and show why. Good editors will correct errors brought to their attention. But to call the Times fake is as illogical as calling Mr. Trump’s regime a fake presidency.

Essayist Avi Lank is a former reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later the Journal Sentinel. He's also the author of the book, "The Man Who Painted the Universe."