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Monday, December 19, 2016

The fake news about fake news

Why the obsession with fake news? Readers with long memories will note that the mainstream media did not use this term to describe the work of Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair, or the reporters who vilified and maligned the Duke Lacrosse Team, or the disgusting fabrications Rolling Stone told about fraternity life at the University of Virginia, or the myths parroted on CNN that Michael Brown shouted “hands up, don’t shoot” before he was killed in Ferguson. Nor was fake news a problem in 2012 when a man named Floyd Corkins said he shot an employee of the conservative Family Research Council in the arm because the Southern Poverty Legal Center had accused it of being a hate group. And yet four years later, when an armed man showed up at a D.C. pizzeria after reading online that it might be connected to human trafficking, the mainstream media’s quest to anathematize fake news intensified. (Luckily, no one was harmed.)

What makes the controversy salient is the uncertain social position of the mainstream media. The press, Tom Wolfe wrote, is a Victorian Gentleman, the arbiter of manners and fashion, the judge of right conduct and good breeding. But the fragmentation of the media landscape, the decentralization of the Internet and social media, and the rise of Donald Trump have set this Victorian Gentleman back on his heels. Long ago he changed his job description and went from telling his readers what had happened to telling them what to think. And the fact that so many people now have the means to disagree with him, to challenge him, to speak unmediated and uncensored, is profoundly disturbing to his sense of authority and self-worth.

There always have been and always will be cynics, fabulists, and crazies, because these human types express durable traits of our nature. But the free-speech zone of the World Wide Web is the result of human artifice, and thus contingent in space and time. It would be folly, and injurious to freedom, if the oligarchs that own social-media platforms allowed the Victorian Gentleman to reassert his preeminent status through censorship of speech that disturbs his liberal, affluent, entitled cocoon.

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