by Dr. Nick J. Sciullo, J.D., Ph.D.
Counterintuitively, what has fueled the white-hot fires of hatred is not so much the idea of fake news, but rather the ahistorical and philosophically dubious quest for true news. Racial injustice has often found solace in claims about supposed biological, psychological, or spiritual truths. One need only look to phrenology or The Bell Curve. So, then, it makes sense that news consumers critique news sources. News has always been biased, a result of writers and editors dealing with personal biases, commercial constraints, and time and space limits. It is quite simply impossible to be neutral in news writing when there is a finite amount of time and space, and the mythical notion of objectivity finds more play in textbooks and nostalgic bias obscurantism than in actual news reporting. Wishing our news to be unbiased and believing it is, or has been, are two different things.
My argument, in short, is that when people suppose news is or could ever be un-biased, they essentialize and simplify the complicated process of news gathering and reporting. They also push a dogmatic belief in their truth as the Truth. Events like Charlottesville happen when people assume there is one right perspective, one way of coming to Truth, and one version of any event. Dogmatism is dangerous. Historically, dogmatism has supported countless wars and persecutions. So, when white supremacists invaded Charlottesville, it was not because they thought they were inundated with #FakeNews, but rather because they had access to and must defend the Truth—real news. That dogmatic belief in possessing the Truth was far more motivating, more empowering, than a generic rejection of multiperspectivism or bias.
Any study of journalism will reveal that news has always had a complex relationship to truth, and not in the Lacanian or Sausserian slippage-of-language way, but rather in the editors-and-writers-make-choices-about-what-news-is-available-to-publics-and-what-language-they-use-to-report-the-news way. Combined with relatively loose standards about what was fit to print, including a preference against objectivity, newspapers were in many ways no better than they are now and perhaps even worse. Consider the ease with which The Alton Spectator announced its biases on page 1, column 3 of the December 13, 1838 edition. Or a specific example, the January 20, 1865 edition of Richmond’s Daily Examiner described Andrew Johnson as “the drunken tailor.” Even in an editorial, this language is injudicious. In the era of yellow journalism (roughly the early quarter of the 20th Century), bias was rampant and some of the best papers in the United States traded in speculation, rumor, and sensationalism, more than in any sense of truth, objectivity, or verifiability. In fact, James L. Baughman argued as much in his presentation at the University of Wisconsin journalism ethics conference in 2011.
There is what seems to be in the United States an endemic concern about media. For years, people have been dissatisfied with media. Claims of #FakeNews are certainly a part of this history. Those questions used to be answered with skepticism, discussion, and comparison between sources. What is different now is that questions of news integrity are not sending news consumers to an array of different sources and mediums. Rather, they are being funneled to Fox News, Brietbart.com, and other rightest media outlets that have more or less the same ideological orientation. This is a problem generally, but also specifically for white rightists. It is no longer acceptable or of interest to read the Washington Post, Washington Times, Washington Examiner, Washington Informer, and Washington City Paper in order to get at this mythical notion of true or real news. Readers instead simply select the Times as the newspaper of record, or some rightist website, and oppose the other newspapers and media sources, often without reading them, and find (shockingly) the paper or website reinforces their beliefs as true and real.
If one believes they are proponents of true or real news then every attack or question becomes an argument against truth.
Because fake news implies a notion of true news, proponents are encouraged to take up one position and defend it from those who might call into question their view’s realness or truthiness. If one believes they are proponents of true or real news then every attack or question becomes an argument against truth, which explains the success of #FakeNews proponents. One seemingly non-partisan news organization perceived this trend well before the era of Trump and declared itself TheRealNews, ostensibly as an attempt to avoid criticism. If fake news is out there then there must be some real news to compare, or so goes the prevailing logic.
Kenneth Burke described people as inventors of the negative, and as such #FakeNews invents its opposite: real or true news. In this world, understanding, evidence comparison, and evaluation of a complex network of biases is devalued because it risks challenging the party or ideological line. As such, the focus on #FakeNews demands a demeaning of the multitude of sources, writers, speakers, and news outlets that inform critically thinking publics. This sort of thinking leaves no room for the necessary weak ontological positions of Gianni Vattimo and Stephen K. White. Weak ontology pushes back against foundationalist commitments in favor of the more critical belief in one’s fallibility, and in turn the fallibility of news sources. Having doubt is important for humility, of course, but also for the critical distance needed to examine complex public policy and ideological issues. What has moved us toward Charlottesville is a doubling down on the foundationalist commitments to true or real news under the banner of appeals to chimeric objectivity.
This is far from a cry for relativism or at least not a cry for the sort of knee-jerk relativist position conservative pundits worry about. The point is not that nothing has meaning, but rather that meaning is complicated, relational, and a matter of socio-historical position. Historians, sociologists, and scholars of many disciplines understand this, but it bears repeating. If readers take account of information’s complexities, then they will be in a much better position to analyze news, without the affective baggage of truthiness. Calling into question the concept of true or real news might help readers, thinkers, and activists of all sorts reflectively consider the way they consume news. Rather than default to a good/bad or true/false paradigm, a meaningful critical position toward news means weighing claims, comparing different sources, and maintaining a healthy level of skepticism and inquiry.
Rightists have secured a political economy first mover advantage that has cast non-rightist media sources as always already dubious.
So, then, the accusation of fake news forces the receptive listener—and there are many—to seek out some mythical true news. That quest is easy (all of these texts are #FakeNews) and also unsatisfying (I’m surrounded by #FakeNews!). Readers are put in the dual position of knowing where to go (“fair and balanced” Fox News, etc.), but also never feeling satisfied because #FakeNews is around every corner, forcing news consumers to look for that which is truer, and often more rightist. People are forced into an echo chamber that confirms the truth of their views. Rightists then are guilty of the same crime they accuse leftists of, namely that they are too far immersed in their biases to get out of them. There seems little compelling reason to assume that rightists have more access to true or real news, simply because they are the quickest to label others as engaging with #FakeNews. Yet, rightists have secured a political economy first mover advantage that has cast non-rightist media sources as always already dubious.
Rather than focus on #FakeNews, media consumers should focus on whether true or real news is a reliable or useful standard. This quest is futile because news is always biased, complicated, and inflected with the biases of reporters and editors. News comes from opinions (about what is important, publishable, true, and interesting) as much as facts; quotations from sources are not indicative of truth, but rather a piece of the puzzle that helps describe what happened in a given scenario. This is why two people in an accident often have different understandings of what happened in that accident. Witnesses then have different understandings still, and law enforcement and safety personnel formulate a theory of the accident, which may or may not accord with any particular participant’s theory. News is complicated.
This impacts historiography greatly because what counts as evidence or a meaningful conflict of evidence gets infinitely complicated in a world where evidence is dismissed as fake. When #FakeNews reduces our access to news, we risk a dangerously narrow view of history, and one that is often white, ahistorical, and a precursor to violence. If the quest for true or real news continues to dominate our discussions about news, we are destined to empower white, rightest, extremism to our material detriment.
Dr. Nick J. Sciullo, J.D., Ph.D. is the John F. “Jeff” Director of Debate and Lecturer in Communication at University of Central Florida. He earned the Best Dissertation Award from the Critical and Cultural Studies Division of the National Communication Association in 2016. His writings have appeared in dozens of journals, law reviews, and newspapers. He writes and speaks regularly on issues of race, class, and critical theory. His previous writing on #FakeNews was published earlier this year in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.