The Universal Notebook: Fake news, alternative facts, media bias

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The Trump administration is making a lot of noise these days about fake news, but that’s all it is, noise. They are the fakers.

In a desperate attempt to discredit the fact-finders who might hold them accountable for their misdeeds, the Trump team is attacking the media, the courts and the intelligence agencies. They even attacked the electoral system until Trump’s improbable victory.

Trump’s dirty tricks may work with his gullible base, but I’d like to believe the majority of Americans see his tweet storms for what they are. Unfortunately, there are signs they don’t.

According to a Harvard-Harris poll released in May, 65percent of Americans believe there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media. The same poll found that 60 percent of Americans think Trump treats the media unfairly. Americans don’t seem to know who to believe anymore and, as a result, don’t trust anyone.

A Gallup poll on Confidence in Institutions found that Americans have more confidence in the military (72 percent) and police (57 percent) than they do in religion (41 percent), the Supreme Court (40 percent), medical system (37 percent), public schools (36 percent) presidency (32 percent), banks (32 percent), criminal justice system (27 percent), newspapers (27 percent), television news (24 percent), big business (21 percent) or Congress (12 percent).

That sounds like a recipe for a police state.

When it comes to news, some Americans, suffering from information overload and out-of-control political spin, seem to have lost their ability to distinguish between fact and opinion. The fact that someone has a different opinion from you does not mean they are wrong or liars, but if we can’t agree on what the facts are, we are in serious trouble.

The mainstream media does not knowingly publish or broadcast fake news. Fake news stories are total fabrication (see Hillary Clinton’s pizza parlor child sex ring). To report on Trump, his family and his flunkies dissembling about their Russian connections, however, is a legitimate story, the meaning of which will not be understood until all the facts are known.

On the other hand, the velocity of events these days does result in the media making a lot of mistakes in the rush to stay ahead of a story. Unlike Trump and our own Gov. Paul LePage, however, the mainstream media usually acknowledges its errors and gets it right in the end.

Portland at one time had as many as 11 newspapers, each with different points of view. But as the news business consolidated, the numbers dwindled and the surviving monopolies began making more of an effort to present facts and represent diverse views. Still, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the Republican Party dominated Maine and the news media, so there was an inborne conservative bias.

More recently, there has been a perception that the media has a liberal bias. That’s in part because educated, urban people tend to be liberal. To counter this perceived liberal bias, conservative forces launched their own media outlets such as conservative talk radio, alt-right websites and Fox News. They were so successful that they began believing their own propaganda – and so did a lot of gullible Americans.

As long as you realize that Fox News only presents a conservative point of view and MSNBC only presents a progressive point of view, you can consider the source and make your own judgment. But if you think either network is unbiased you may no longer be able to distinguish fact from fiction, reporting from editorializing.

The erosion of confidence in the media becomes even more insidious when the bias is undeclared. Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which owns WGME 13 in Portland, for example, made a deal to give Trump more positive coverage in exchange for greater access. Now Sinclair has its own Russian-born Trump administration propagandist, Boris Epshteyn, editorializing on all of its affiliates. So while you may still be able to trust news anchor Kim Block for local news, you can no longer trust WGME for national news.

The latest conservative media monkey-wrenching is to plant fake news stories in hopes of tripping up news organizations. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was recently sent what looked like National Security Agency documents that named someone in the Trump administration as working with the Trump campaign on the Russian hacking of the U.S. election. To her credit, Maddow determined that the documents were forged and warned other media outlets to watch out for fake news traps.

The bottom line on fake news is that legitimate news organizations will follow the facts wherever they lead. The Trump administration takes its lumps in the media because it deserves them, but Trump’s attacks on the media are both self-serving and, ultimately, a threat not only to freedom of the press, but to freedom itself.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.