FARMINGTON — In his Jan. 14 Maine Voices column, “There’s nothing ‘fake’ about real news written by responsible journalists,” Chet Lunner explained that real news is “meticulously researched, vetted, double-checked (and) precisely written and edited.”

Lunner, a veteran reporter of wide experience and founding president of the Maine Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, may hope to restore the power and prestige of what are often called the traditional media by praising their virtues and damning the vices of rival sources. He’ll be disappointed. Last year, Gallup found that just 20 percent of those polled had confidence in newspapers, and 21 percent in TV news. Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times and Christiane Amanpour of CNN didn’t help much by declaring their inability and unwillingness to take a neutral position on Donald Trump.

Will Rahn of CBS News confessed in a Nov. 10 commentary that “we were all tacitly or explicitly #WithHer (Hillary Clinton), which has led to a certain anguish in the face of Donald Trump’s victory.” Rahn goes on to make a point that Lunner seems to overlook: that millions who voted for Trump were rebuking not only the political system “but also the people who cover it. Trump knew what he was doing when he invited his crowds to jeer and hiss the reporters covering him. They hate us, and have for some time.”

If we accept Rahn’s analysis, Trump the candidate benefited from making himself a spokesman for people who loathe the press. Trump the president will benefit by discrediting all negative reports in advance, regardless of whether they are “meticulously researched, vetted, double-checked (and) precisely written and edited” or not.

Consequently, those hungry for news will increasingly turn to those categories Lunner places under the heading “fake news,” i.e., “propaganda, rumor, satire, lies, slander, gossip, innuendo, unconfirmed reports, opinion, hearsay, commentary, rhetoric, comedy, hyperbole, send-before-midnight infomercials, ‘political speech’ and tweets.”

Some of us (e.g., me) think we see many of these elements cropping up pretty regularly in the established media, but that does not excuse or deny fake news. It exists. It has always existed, if only because politics and paranoia agree as well as bacon and eggs.

As more news consumers wander away from Lunner’s idealized “responsible journalists” and the revenues that finance their work dwindle, it’s hard to see how the careful researching and editing he describes can be sustained. The decline of our traditional media’s audience comes in large part from technological developments that multiply the options of those delivering and consuming news, fake or real.

Along with a description of the ideals of responsible journalism, the columnist mentions the two means by which this responsibility is enforced: 1) Strict code of ethics; 2) Fear of lawsuits. The first will not retard the fake-flow; rumor-mongers, gossips and political operatives are not famously ethical. A fear of lawsuits has some promise in theory, but American journalists are not known to favor British standards for libel, slander and defamation.

So this leaves regulatory measures by the Federal Communications Commission or private corporations. This will be censorship. But calling it “censorship” will probably fall into the category of “fake news,” so we will call it “regulation.”

A Democratic California state senator named Bill Dodd hopes to reduce the evils of “fake news” at the consumer end. He has introduced a bill to incorporate media literacy education into school curricula. His legislation will charge the California Board of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission with responsibility for developing a framework for incorporating media literacy into school curricula.

Conservatives and Republicans, reflecting on Dodd’s party affiliation and the performance of the California Board of Education, will probably be able to think of a number of things that could go wrong with this plan.

I’ll say no more on that, but since the tradition of freedom of speech is coming under severe examination in some academic circles, it seems timely to mention that the traditional argument for the free speech ideal relied on the belief that truth must eventually prevail in “the marketplace of ideas” if left unimpeded by external authority. This can’t be reconciled with any of the methods for curbing fake news being proposed so far. We are probably stuck with it forever.


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