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Column: Who decides what is ‘fake news’?

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 12/6/2019 10:10:27 PM
Modified: 12/6/2019 10:10:14 PM

As I read, watch and listen to coverage of the impeachment proceedings, it is evident that President Donald Trump is not the only person whose integrity is being questioned. The media is also on trial. But unlike the president, the media, condemned for different reasons by both political parties, seems destined to be deemed guilty no matter how the pending trial plays out.

The president belittles members of the media as “fake news.” He uses his Twitter account to taunt them and undercut their reporting and he relies on Fox News, which reliably supports him, to provide a forum to present his own counter-narrative. The president and his GOP supporters blame the “lamestream media” and the “deep state” for undercutting the national trust in his leadership. Worse, he and some of his most ardent supporters buy into unproven or disproven conspiracy theories promoted by fringe media sources, theories that reinforce distrust of the mainstream media and the government itself.

The president’s most progressive opponents are skeptical of any reports from the “corporate media,” which they view as being controlled by an increasingly small number of oligarchs like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, billionaires who are not interested in digging deeply into the news, especially if it compromises their wealth. The president’s opponents decry outlets like Fox and Breitbart, viewing them as propaganda arms of the president.

This skepticism results in a bipartisan agreement on one “fact”: the mainstream media cannot be trusted, which means there is no universal agreement on the events taking place, no common narrative. Consequently, we find ourselves in a world where people make up their own facts, create their own narratives and define their own realities.

To make matters worse, our personal realities are reinforced daily by our personal news feeds. The news I get on my iPhone consists of articles Apple knows I’ll like based on my viewing history. My like-minded friends on Facebook all read the same media outlets as I do and hold a common perspective on the world, so we exchange “ain’t it awful” memes and articles from magazines that echo our world view. Even the bumper stickers I look at in the Co-op parking lot all seem to reinforce my view of the world.

But I’ve read enough history to realize that the world we are living in today is not that different from the world my great-grandfather lived in during the 1880s in Philadelphia. The Library of Congress provides access to 54 newspapers and periodicals published in Philadelphia at that time, several of which filtered news stories based on religious convictions, culture and language. As relatively recent immigrants from Germany, it’s possible my forebears got their news from Der Pelikan Edlere on my father’s side of the family while my mother’s side of the family was reading news filtered by the Literary Intelligencer. And, I daresay, in addition to these “legitimate” publications that were stored for posterity in our national archives, there were several “illegitimate news sources” that circulated on the streets of Philadelphia, some of which may have found their way into my great-grandparents’ homes.

They didn’t have a president who tweeted, social media platforms that confirmed their biases or relentless news reports offering contradictory narratives. Instead, they lived in neighborhoods where everyone spoke the same language, worshipped in the same churches and shared many of the same values.

In short, my great-grandparents chose their own facts, created their own narratives based on what they read in newspapers and heard on street corners, and had their own reality. Somehow, despite these diverse “facts,” the country muddled through and a common narrative, a universal agreement on what transpired, eventually emerged.

History shows us that true and honest news sources will ultimately prevail and disreputable news sources will be rejected by the majority of readers — and history shows us that any efforts to squelch a free and unbridled press is antithetical to democracy. Whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, and investigative journalists such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Glenn Greenwald and others, have been controversial. But readers and voters benefited from the insights into the inner workings of our government that their efforts provided. We need to retain the mainstream media and the platforms that transmit information, including those sources that are sometimes seen as scurrilous or misleading.

As the impeachment trial plays out, both sides are likely to continue to disparage the media. When they do, we should ask: Who do we want to decide which news is “real” and which news is “fake”? The government? The private sector (such as Facebook or Google)? Some sort of algorithm?

History tells us that citizens in a democracy need reliable information to guide their decisions, and it is they who ultimately will determine what is “real” and what is “fake.”

Wayne Gersen lives in Etna.

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