This was the year of fake news, as I keep reading. But so were most years preceding it. In 1897 newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst sent ace illustrator Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover a revolutionary war against its Spanish rulers. Remington wrote to Hearst that he found no revolution and there would be no war. “You furnish the pictures,” wrote Hearst, “and I’ll furnish the war.” War duly followed, and the sorry saga of Cuba-U.S. relations, still ongoing.

In 2002, an adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush derided journalists for seeing themselves as part of a “reality-based community” who believe in a “discernible reality” which they report on objectively. “But that’s not the way the world works any more,” said the mouthpiece. “We’re an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality.”

That sounded like the proclamation of a new era in fake news and propaganda. Except it’s probably exactly how the Athenian elite sounded in 415 B.C. as they conspired to convince the demos to send a bloated fleet to attack Sicily, leading to a debacle much like the U.S. war in Iraq.

History doesn’t repeat precisely, but it echoes. Fake news isn’t new, but there are new wrinkles. So Macedonian teenagers now, desperate for money they get from ads if there are sufficient hits on their sites, post false stories. Sometimes they’re based on U.S. right-wing sites: Hillary urged Trump to run! Sometimes they’re simply fabricated: The pope endorses Trump! (Trump supporters are by far their juiciest targets.)

Yet even that’s also how the late great Weekly World News operated, the one you grabbed at the cash in the supermarket. Writers sat around the office in Florida, as some still do, competing to invent the best fake story: Saturn is a giant UFO! Alien Endorses Trump!

A special wrinkle in the modern era is provided by mainstream journalism’s delusions of its own objectivity. So they were sincerely shocked when Trump blatantly lied and shamelessly contradicted himself. For a brief, glorious moment they explicitly labelled all his lies as lies — something that never happened before in the history of reporting lies by officially respectable figures.

They undermined that advance, though, by never labelling the lies told by Hillary and others with the same frankness. In the aftermath of the election, they’ve abandoned it even in Trump’s case and reverted to their old double standards in covering highly comparable events like the sieges of Aleppo (“shameful”) versus Mosul (“heroic”).

Personally, I still consider mainstream media bias a far more serious issue than “fake news.” But there’s no doubt the mainstream media (MSM) are in decline. In fact, I’m discovering that the infuriating hypocrisy of MSM bias — with the New York Times as the gold standard — remains ever useful in motivating efforts to pierce through it. If everything seems cheerfully, openly and equally false, it’s hard to know where to start eviscerating. You get lethargic, rather than energized.

Conclusion? Stories about fake news as a major problem, are fake news.

Potential source of hope? Joke news: The Daily ShowThe Onion, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, even the rejuvenated (by Trump versus Hillary) Saturday Night Live. These now have the highest credibility ratings as news sources, especially among the young. Why do humour versions of news ring so true?

It seems to me this is related to the inversions associated with humour. People often seem at their smartest when they’re being funny, which makes the rest of us think that they must be smart about other things, like politics. Yet the incisiveness rarely transfers. Very funny people get very dull and conventional on political subjects. If only they could stay in their funny mode when they start in on politics — which is what happens on the joke news shows.

What’s behind it? When you’re being funny, you’re relaxed, you’re being yourself, you’re not trying to seem smart or insightful. So your basic intelligence shines through. But when you’re trying to be serious, you get anxious and strive too hard to say the sort of thing you’d find in The New York Times, or that you’d opine if you were on a panel with hefty thinkers, like CBC’s At Issue, or anything hosted by Anderson Cooper. Something is lost: the real, smart, insightful you.

Viva Jon! Viva John! Viva Samantha! Viva Trevor! Abbasso New York Times!

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

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Image: Flickr/BagoGames


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.