Mainstream Media and the Rise of Fake News: Crossing the Bigfoot Line

In response to my Crass Edupolitics, Failed Mainstream Media in South Carolina, Paul Bowers, education reporter at The Post and Courier, and Jason Emory Park, Interactive Editor at the P&C, offered a few key entry points into unpacking how mainstream media norms have contributed significantly to the rise of fake news and post-truth public discourse:

Paul Thomas @plthomasEdD

@Paul_Bowers @postandcourier Media never says that the claim x is false. Thus contributes to posttruth. See Chris Hedges piece I link

Paul Bowers @Paul_Bowers

.@plthomasEdD Which claims in my story are false?

Paul Thomas @plthomasEdD

@Paul_Bowers @postandcourier Crass Edupolitics, Failed Mainstream Media in South Carolina …

Paul Bowers @Paul_Bowers

.@plthomasEdD @postandcourier I fail to see how reporting on the lobbying activity of charter advocates constitutes “fake news.”

Paul Thomas @plthomasEdD

@Paul_Bowers Not that simple. I would say misleading to continue to treat these edureform groups and leaders as credible. +

Jason Emory Parker ✔@jaspar

@plthomasEdD @Paul_Bowers that’s not what fake news is, though

Paul Thomas @plthomasEdD

@jaspar @Paul_Bowers All related and mainstream “both sides” so-called objectivity feeds rise of fake news/posttruth. Read the Hedges piece

Jason Emory Parker ✔@jaspar

@plthomasEdD @Paul_Bowers I think attitudes like this “feed the rise” of misunderstanding about fake news, a specific thing.

These challenges from Bowers and Parker — to a position I believe has been best examined by Chris Hedges, with whom I mostly agree on this analysis — present several key dynamics associated with understanding how media present facts and truth, and then how the public consumes and often misreads facts and truth:

  • Mainstream media and journalists are entrenched in a “both sides” mentality that they continue to defend as objective and fair.
  • As Hedges confronts, mainstream media have blurred divisions of media (such as the loss of the clear line between the news and entertainment divisions) and have suffered contractions as businesses that have weakened investigative journalism; and thus, “press release journalism” and business interests trumping the ethical grounding of the free press have come to characterize mainstream media.
  • Yes, as Parker argues, mainstream journalism, fake news, and post-truth discourse are distinct from each other, but my point is that they are subsets of the same problem and they each feed the other: a traditional and so-called objective mainstream news story provides the environment in which fake news thrives.

My blogging has catalogued for years how edujournalism represents the larger mainstream media failures (such as failing to refute Donald Trump) and how all of mainstream journalism has birthed fake news and post-truth discourse.

Consider these examples from edujournalism:

  • Search Education Week for hundreds of articles including something such as “teacher quality is the most important element in student achievement.” These stories depend on the fact that SOE Duncan or NCTQ or Michelle Rhee or Bill Gates or someone with implied authority makes that statement.
  • While these articles (to Bowers’s point above) are being factual about Person X or Y making the claim, they are using mainstream norms of journalism to abdicate the journalists’ professional obligation to identify the source’s credibility and the credibility of the claim itself.
  • A critical free press would have covered these years focusing on teacher quality differently by noting, for example, that when SOE Duncan claims teacher quality is the most important element in student achievement, Duncan was exposing his own lack of expertise and making a false claim since teacher quality accounts for only about 10–15% of student achievement; out -of-school factors remain the overwhelmingly largest factor in student achievement (60% or more), and even if we focus on in-school factors, teacher quality is no more important than other school factors and unexplained influences.

This same careless but normal process characterized the rise and fall of Common Core: advocates for new standards were allowed the prominent stage with edujournalists reporting that they were making Claims X, Y, and Z (again it was true they were making the claims), but those same journalists made little to no effort to report that research has shown that there is no correlation between the quality or even existence of standards and student achievement.

In other words, Common Core advocacy was much ado about nothing, expect wasted money.

Now, on the national stage, the parallel media pattern in terms of Trump is undeniable:

  • In his TV ads and speeches, Trump repeatedly claimed higher crime rates and unemployment — both refuted by facts.
  • The media, however, mostly reported the fact that Trump made the claims without challenging either Trump or the claims.
  • A critical free press would have reported Trump’s lies as a fact.

If we return to Parker’s insistence that we make fine distinctions about terms, then, we can agree that fake news and mainstream journalism are not exactly the same, but I must stress that as long as journalists refuse to see how they are culpable for fake news and post-truth discourse, as I have shown above, that distinction is merely academic.

For traditional journalists to use “we are not fake news” as a shield for refusing to investigate how they are failing their ethical responsibility as a free press is inexcusable.

As my blog post that prompted this exchange exposed, two major newspapers in South Carolina continue to give a primary stage to a bogus education organization and bogus leaders of that organization because the media remains mired in press-release journalism — reporting on what advocates feed them.

Trump has acquired the ultimate podium and will now garner a primary stage simply because he is president, not because he is credible, not because his claims are factual.

Will it be fake news to report the new SOE endorsing school choice? Will it be fake news to report President Trump taking credit for a booming economy before any of his policies have been implemented?

Well, let’s go back in time a bit: Under George W. Bush, then-SOE Margaret Spellings announced that NCLB was working because test scores had increased; however, all the score increases for NAEP between 1999–2005 occurred before NCLB was implemented.

Thus, the press reports of Spellings announcing NCLB’s success was factual, and the rise in scores from 1999–2005 was factual.

However, press-release journalism allowed Spellings’s essential argument to slip by without media noting it was a lie, a political lie.

So was that fake news? And does it matter what we call it?

I say it doesn’t matter because, to return to Bowers’s “I fail to see how reporting on the lobbying activity of charter advocates constitutes ‘fake news,’” media coverage of charter school advocacy perpetuates several false narratives about public schools, why student achievement remains inadequate, and the effectiveness of charter schools.

This coverage is not fake, but it is just as corrosive as if it were fake because it is misleading and misguided.

There was a time when The National Enquirer ran story after story about Bigfoot. To report that a person claimed to see Bigfoot while camping was not fake news if the person made these claims to the journalist.

In other words, it was a fact the person claimed to see Bigfoot.

There was a time when mainstream media drew a line at such stories because of the essential lack of credibility in the person making such claims and no evidence of Bigfoot existing.

Call it what you will, but that line no longer exists.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store