OXFORD — “Fake news” is easy to define but for some it’s hard to recognize.
The term “means what it sounds like,” said Margaret Sullivan, chief media columnist for The Washington Post who was at the Ole Miss School of Journalism last week.
Or, in other words, fake news is fake. It’s not true.
Sullivan was the featured member of a panel at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, discussing the phrase President Trump has made famous and its impact on the country.
She was joined by Charles L. Overby, chairman of the Center, and Greg Brock, a senior fellow at the Center and former senior editor of The New York Times.
Sullivan, a former public editor of The New York Times before joining The Washington Post, has called on the media to retire the phrase. “‘Fake news’ has had its 15 minutes of fame,” she wrote in a column. “Let’s put this tainted term out of its misery.”
That’s not going to happen as long as Donald Trump remains president and is able to speak and tweet from his bully pulpit.
In a column she wrote in February, Sullivan said Trump has used the term 400 times since becoming president. She wrote: “It’s as simple as this: Trump doesn’t believe that the news about him is fake. No matter how many times he says it. He merely objects to the fact that it doesn’t reflect well on him.”
A lot of what Trump and others call fake news isn’t fake, and, conversely some of what they pass off as truth is fake.
This is especially true of stuff you read on the internet, which is not subject to the libel laws that newspapers and broadcasters must adhere to.
I — and I suspect anyone who gets email or scans social media — have seen reports that are totally false. If you call the sender’s attention to the fact that it is false, he or she takes offense.
I received a group email a highly educated man had sent. It was an opinion piece with a byline by a columnist I knew had not written it. When I called the fake byline to his attention, instead of correcting it to the group, he wrote me back that it was still a good column no matter who wrote it, and he had picked it up from someone who emailed it to him.
Many in journalism, including Sullivan, fear the constant attacks on the media are undercutting democracy. Sullivan agrees that the media must deal with problems like mistakes, disinformation and conspiracies, but she wrote that “putting them all in a blender and slapping on a fuzzy name doesn’t move us forward.”
There is no question that there is media bias, especially in cable television. All you have to do is switch back and forth between CNN and Fox News to see that.
CNN consistently hammers Trump, while Fox, with the exception of a few such as Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith and Brett Baier, echoes and cheers him.
Much of what you see on those two outlets is opinion, not “fair and balanced” coverage of the news.
Viewers or readers who want accuracy should check both on occasions if cable news is their thing, or, better yet, read some newspapers either in print or online.
Again, there will be mistakes, and perhaps bias. But professional journalists — not those who are in and out of politics and are hired to pontificate on television — try to convey accurate news.
The trouble with too many of us is we want to see opinion pieces with which we agree and not necessarily unbiased news.
Something that was mentioned at the Overby discussion by Sullivan was that older people tend to believe fake news more than young people. Maybe that’s because they come from an era when there were fewer news outlets — no cable TV and social media — and people were more inclined to believe what they read in the newspaper or saw on the few television networks. How could you not trust Walter Cronkite?
So, if fake news doesn't go away — which it probably won’t — maybe it’s a good thing the younger generation is more perceptive.
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.