Fake News War Comes to Kentucky
By: Scott Jennings
The term “fake news” is here to stay. Invented by President Donald Trump, he uses it as a shield against news organizations he feels are being dishonest or overly critical.
Last week, President Trump Tweeted: “The Fake News media is officially out of control. They will do or say anything in order to get attention – never been a time like this!” And his reelection campaign is running television ads touting Trump’s record, arguing “you wouldn’t know it from watching the news” as a huge “FAKE NEWS” graphic overlays the screen.
Jeff Mason, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, “received a standing ovation” when he told his organization’s annual dinner “We are not ‘fake news.’ We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people,” answering charges leveled against media organizations by President Trump.
The president and the press are at war over “fake news.” But what does it mean to the average American? Is it possible for an everyday news consumer to conclude, even without the president’s prodding, that at least some news is fake?
Not only is it possible, it is clearly happening. Take a recent case involving U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, KY):
(Disclaimer: While this won’t earn me any back slaps at the next meeting of the conservative establishment, I believe most journalists are honest people, working hard under difficult circumstances to present fair stories. And I am a fan of the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper and most of its reporters, including those who work for parent company McClatchy. Over the years, the Herald-Leader has produced valuable journalism even as its editorial page skews dramatically to the left.)
On April 25, a reporter named Curtis Tate of McClatchy published an article in the Herald-Leader with this opening: “Retired coal miners wearing camouflage shirts were an unmistakable, recurring sight Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Yet to Kentucky’s senators, they may as well have blended in with the woodwork.”
The article was about 22-thousand retired union miners and their spouses lobbying Congress for a permanent extension of health benefits, which had been temporarily extended in December. The piece left readers with the unmistakable impression that McConnell, the senior senator from a coal state, was ignoring constituents on the verge of losing their health coverage. There is no way to read the article and conclude anything else. Liberal sports and news commentator Matt Jones took the story the way Tate intended, Tweeting: “I am pretty tired of Mitch McConnell claiming he is “pro-coal” and continuing to ignore KY coal miners’ healthcare.”
Fast forward six days to May 1. The congressional spending deal was done and the same newspaper—using a different reporter named Bill Estep—published a story with this headline: “Unions praise McConnell for deal to fix health benefits of retired miners.”
You could forgive the average reader of the Herald-Leader for doing a double take, since the paper had told them less than a week prior that McConnell was ignoring the coal miners.
Who was right? The evidence strongly supports Estep. In December of last year, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America union, wrote an opinion piece for the Herald-Leader with the following paragraph:
“I want to thank those who were responsible for this, including Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell…and I commend him for wanting to do more than just this four-month extension.”
Roberts held a press conference on April 26 in which he continued to praise McConnell:
“I want to do something…most people think I would never say…I want to thank Majority Leader McConnell…I am man enough to say that we appreciate the willingness to allow this legislation to move forward and be considered,” Roberts said. For years, the UMWA has worked to unseat McConnell, spending heavily in vain from its coffers.
And on April 28, the UMWA’s official twitter account tweeted at reporter Tate and this columnist (who was questioning Tate about this matter): “We did not feel ignored. [McConnell’s] staff met with us while he was on the floor.”
The evidence overwhelmingly indicates Estep had it right and Tate had it wrong. If one report was real, then the other was…fake. This episode animates a recent Morning Consult polling statistic: just 29 percent of Americans trust the political news media to tell the truth.
For Tate’s part, he showed no remorse when presented with overwhelming, narrative-busting evidence. He even blocked this columnist on Twitter when the UMWA weighed in. Remarkably, Tate was listed as a “contributor” to the Estep report, meaning he was forced to help write something that completely contradicted his prior work.
This happens at the national level, too: reporters have frequently written things about Trump (i.e. the Martin Luther King bust incident and the New England Patriots photo debacle) that later required correction.
Trump is right – some “news” is, in fact, fake.
It is extremely dangerous for Americans to have such a low opinion of the news media. Trust will be slow to return if these kinds of incidents continue, causing average news consumers to wonder – did this really happen or not?