A fake news case study

Imagine if CNN was reporting on the latest ramblings of Iran’s Islamist leaders, and used the chyron “Iranian President Says United States is The Great Satan.”

Most of us, I assume, would realize that the network was reporting on what the Iranian President said, and wasn’t trying to open a debate on whether the United States is indeed the Great Satan.

However, the network is now facing a public-relations nightmare because of a similarly worded chyron, used during a segment about antisemitic comments made by “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer during a speech in Washington:

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Twitter users began screaming their outrage, and other media outlets quickly followed:

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Here’s the problem: CNN was not in fact debating whether Jews are human beings.  On the contrary, the complete segment makes it clear that the network was actually doing its job.

Host Jim Sciutto began the segment by describing Spencer’s comments as antisemitic, hateful garbage, and then interviewed two journalists about how President-elect Trump (a week later, I still can’t believe I have to write that) should respond.

Spencer was not actually interviewed during the segment, nor was any other “alt-right” figure who has enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s shocking election victory.  CNN was not debating Spencer’s proposition, but reporting on it.  That is their job.  In the age of Trump, that is what we need CNN and other media outlets to do.

Some people are attacking CNN for using the term “alt-right” instead of “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi.”  That’s a fair criticism, though I’d counter that this CNN chyron actually illustrates how the term is just a new wrapping for the same old poison.  But the most serious accusation leveled at CNN – that they’re somehow “legitimizing” a discussion about whether Jews are human beings  – is flat-out wrong.

We’ve heard a lot about “fake news” lately, and how partisan lies spread on Facebook contributed to Trump’s election victory.  It spreads so quickly partly because people want their biases confirmed, and partly because, on some level, people want to be outraged.  We don’t want to believe the other side may have points worth considering or real concerns which should be addressed.  We want to believe the other side are monsters who must be defeated without mercy.

Richard Spencer and his brethren, as it happens, really are monsters who must be defeated without mercy.  But if media outlets are going to be savaged for accurately reporting on them, they may decide it’s just not worth the trouble.  And we will all lose.

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