Does Term ‘Fake News’ Intentionally Misdirect Attention?
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other, and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. (Federalist 10)
What exactly is “fake news”? Depending on the context, the word “fake” can take on a variety of meanings. Most of them (forgery, counterfeit, imitation) question the provenance of a given object—its source or author, regardless of the quality of the work itself. So, a work of art is “fake” if it purports to be a masterpiece by some highly regarded artist when it is not. No matter how superb the artistry it represents, or how much genuine pleasure and insight it brings to those who gaze upon it, the slight departures in subject matter, stroke or composition that betray its false lineage to the true expert make it a crime to pass it off as the real thing.
With this connotation, calling something “fake news” is a sophisticated ad hominem attack. However, when they hear the phrase, many people take it to mean that the contents of a given story or report are untrue. But if, after you have carefully vetted and signed a contract, you watch as someone copies it electronically, is it right for your lawyer to question the accuracy of its contents simply because the copy does not accurately reproduce the texture of the elegant strokes made possible by your top of the line, limited edition gold Cartier fountain pen?
Such technicalities don’t always prove that something is not a true copy. Of course, where information is concerned, provenance can matter a great deal. We’re unlikely to accept the firsthand report of the location and strength of an enemy’s forces, however plausibly related by someone we know to be their double agent, since it may very well be carefully contrived disinformation. Yet we will not, for that reason, simply reject all of its details. A carefully contrived deception often contains a fair amount of easily verified or well-known data.
Someone who lies effectively has to understand this so well that every aspect of their demeanor contributes to the desired effect. This is why truly great actors make the best liars (or is it that the best liars make truly great actors). They have mastered the art of conveying the fundamental lie (“I am the character you see before you”) with their whole being, so that every gesture and intonation conforms to the viewer’s expectation of what their character is like. Obviously, this means that knowing true facts about the character is not enough. The great actor has to know his audience, and have a good sense of when to play to its ignorance.
Does this mean that the well-acted performances we enjoy are simply lies? What if the combination of imaginative artistry and accurate history leaves audiences with a true overall impression of events, and the motives, passions and necessities that shaped those events? Is that impression simply a lie, or is it a work of art capable of informing and instructing those who witness it, even in spite of themselves?
Keeping this in mind, let’s examine one detail of a Newsmax report about a recent New York Times story some are decrying as “fake news”:
In its Monday editions, the Times reported that Cohen delivered the document about Russia and Ukraine to Michael Flynn, who resigned as national security adviser last week.
The handover is said to have occurred a week before Flynn resigned following a Washington Post story that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about President Barack Obama’s sanctions against Russia.
The proposal, reportedly outlining a way for Trump to lift the sanctions against Russia, was said to have been delivered to Cohen during a meeting he had with Andrey Artemenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and Felix Sater, who has worked on real estate projects with Trump’s company and the Times says has helped Trump “scout deals in Russia.”
Cohen, a lawyer with the Trump Organization since 2007, told Newsmax the meeting occurred — but he insisted he did not deliver the envelope to the White House and did not discuss it with anybody.
According to the Newsmax account Michael Cohen admits that the meeting the New York Times reported did in fact occur. Mr. Artemenko did in fact have a proposal about “outlining a way for Trump to lift the sanctions against Russia.” Was it delivered to the White House? According to Newsmax, Cohen “insisted he did not deliver the envelope [italics mine]to the White House and did not discuss it with anybody… when Artemenko suggested hand-delivery he turned it down.”
Given the technologies available these days, does this mean that neither Mr. Trump nor anyone in his circle, was made aware of the proposal or its contents? 21st century communications need not be “hand-delivered”. We have emails, text messages, and the expedient of making even bulky documents accessible to people by way of various “clouds”, some generally available for public use, others set up by experts for the exclusive use of the organizations employing them.
The reference to hand delivery narrows the scope of Cohen’s statement in a way that could make it true, even if it is not accurate. On account of this reference, it’s possible that Cohen does not lie. He simply tailors his account to avoid critical revelations. It’s also true that, in present usage, sharing a document by electronic means, even with a brief precis of its contents, does not constitute a “discussion”.
Is the Newsmax account of Mr. Cohen’s rebuttal “fake news”? Given its lawyerly precision, does his rebuttal offer readers concrete, factual justification for the charge that the New York Times report of his meeting with Artemenko and Sater is “fake news”? An audience sufficiently prejudiced against the New York Times, will probably not bother to notice the possibility of telling omissions from Mr. Cohen’s statement about how he handled Artemenko’s proposal. Such readers enjoy a kind of “invincible ignorance”: Not because their ignorance cannot be overcome, but because their factious passions impel them to go unquestioningly down paths cleverly hedged by language, discretely employ—like Mr. Cohen’s lawyerly reference to “hand delivery”.
The result may or may not be “fake news”. But it can certainly lead to false conclusions. If and when it does, however effectively it flatters the opinions and prejudices of its intended audience, does it properly inform, or simply manipulate them? [In a column later this week I will discuss whether or not, in his recent comments about Sweden, President Trump fell into the muddied waters surrounding the term “fake news”; and whether, in general, it serves or disserves the American people’s vocation of self-government. Interested readers may wish to Check this space.]
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