'Fake news' stings because it strikes at the claim to Arbiter of Truth

As one who gets more than his fair share of false stories delivered to my email inbox, Twitter feed, and Facebook timeline, I embarked upon John Boyle's weekend column in the Asheville Citizen-Times with interest. Headline:

Fighting the 'fake news' lie on climate change

He begins:

It seems pretty simple, really: Just stop spreading lies.
What do I mean by that? In this post-truth, "alternate facts" world of "fake news" we seem to live in now, a good first step toward discerning the truth might be to stop intentionally spreading false stories.

This is a noble pursuit we all should support.

However, it has become ironically difficult in the Information Age to know what outlets are trustworthy and which ones are not. Should we avoid any operation that has gotten stories wrong? What about outlets that exhibited an obvious rush to judgement in service to an explicit bias? If so, there are a lot of news outlets that would've gone out of business after the Covington Catholic media scandal.

Mr. Boyle tells us of an interaction he had on Facebook with a businessman who shared a story that attributed climate change to solar cycles instead of human activity. Then he explains how President Donald Trump lies virtually all of the time about things great and small. After which, he promotes a general defense of legacy news operations filled with people trying to get the stories right under difficult conditions.

Had he ended there, I wouldn't be writing this.

But Boyle then pronounces judgement about The Truth of Anthropogenic Global Warming by citing a variety of sources that are generally accepted as reliable. He concludes:

Now, I know no amount of scientific evidence is going to change the mind of the local businessman.
Whether it's believing that vaccines cause autism, the Earth is flat, smoking is actually good for you, or dinosaurs and man lived at the same time, once people adopt an idea that reaffirms their beliefs (or vice versa) they're unlikely to give it up, even in the face overwhelming scientific fact.

Nice.

Equating skepticism at climate alarmism with flat-earthers? Really subtle.

This is actually a perfect illustration of the disconnect between media members and an audience they just can't seem to persuade... but not in the way Boyle described.

Like it or not, climate science is infested with politics. And for some reason, virtually every proposed solution is more government, less freedom, higher taxes, and more socialism. I'm sure it's just coincidence.

The entire climate debate is influenced by - and influences - politics. This adds another layer of skepticism.

Obviously, there are experts who express skepticism of the position that man is primarily responsible for global warming. They cite natural climate variability and the sun (among other factors) as the main drivers of temperatures. They also acknowledge that humans do, indeed, have an impact.

The questions are: How much impact? What can actually be done to mitigate impacts? What are the costs of those mitigation efforts?

Again, experts have different opinions on these questions. But, for political purposes, it's far easier to just say "The science is settled" and shut down any debate.

And, to be clear... there is a debate.

In 2010 Climate Depot released a report featuring more than 1,000 scientists, several of them former UN IPCC scientists, who disagreed that humans are primarily responsible for global climate change. [55] The Cook review [1] of 11,944 peer-reviewed studies found 66.4% of the studies had no stated position on anthropogenic global warming, and while 32.6% of the studies implied or stated that humans are contributing to climate change, only 65 papers (0.5%) explicitly stated "that humans are the primary cause of recent global warming." [54] A 2012 Purdue University survey found that 47% of climatologists challenge the idea that humans are primarily responsible for climate change and instead believe that climate change is caused by an equal combination of humans and the environment (37%), mostly by the environment (5%), or that there’s not enough information to say (5%). [173] In 2014 a group of 15 scientists dismissed the US National Climate Assessment as a "masterpiece of marketing," that was "grossly flawed," and called the NCA’s assertion of human-caused climate change "NOT true."

Despite this information, Boyle offers no mention of any opposing view. It is simply dismissed as the equivalent of "fake news." Or flat-earthers.

Boyle's pronouncement about The Truth of Anthropogenic Global Warming doesn't just get conveyed in his column, of course. This view will be reflected in every story he writes (as a reporter) that touches on climate change: promoting and defending one line while dismissing, minimizing, or ignoring the other. Every climate-related story that Boyle comes in contact with will be filtered through the prism of his pronouncement. Because it's The Truth.

And for people who are exposed to the skeptics' arguments and judge them to be legitimate - or worth mentioning, at the very least, - the message Boyle sends is very clear. And it's why these folks return the "fake news" insult.

Boyle concludes:

So no, we are not perpetuating fake news. We're perpetuating news some people don't want to hear because it will require a change in lifestyle and thinking. In short, it makes people comfortable people uncomfortable.
And that's what we're supposed to do in this business.

This is a reference to one of the most famous quotes about newspapers - "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Most who use it see it as a noble pursuit.

The quote actually comes from a fictional bartender named Mr. Dooley by Chicago Evening Post journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne. The quote was meant as a criticism - not an organizing principle. It's no wonder that the audience sees the author's thumb on the scale and suspects he might be invested in a particular outcome.

Of course there is a simpler reason people sling the term "fake news" at journalists: They know it stings.

When journalists hold themselves up to be The Arbiters of Truth, deciding what side is right and what side is wrong, they become invested in the outcome. As such, it becomes vital to defend their rulings lest it obliterate their status - which is why we see the hyper-sensitivity to the "fake news" branding.

And it is because the branding has been effective in undermining their self-appointed claim as Arbiter of Truth that it wounds so deeply.

Here's how that fictional bartender was born:

 

Pete's Prep: Monday, Nov. 25, 2019

  • Washington Examiner: "Trump's true reason for releasing the aid matters to the Democratic impeachment scheme. If he released the money after learning about the whistleblower — after he realized the jig was up — then that, at least to Democrats, suggests guilt. If he released it after gaining confidence in Zelensky, that does not suggest guilt. But the evidence suggests that neither explanation is correct, that there is a much simpler reason for Trump's decision to release the aid."
  • Erick Erickson: "It is extraordinarily convenient that Chick-fil-A abandons the largest nonprofit in America dedicated to fighting homelessness in order to fight homelessness and does so after sustained attack from progressive mobs for that support."
  • Wall Street Journal: "[E]xpansion appears to have more than tripled the amount of improper spending in the program. Twenty percent or more of Medicaid spending in 2019—an amount likely to exceed $75 billion—is improper. Before ObamaCare, the Medicaid improper-payment rate was 6%." (hat tip: Carolina Plotthound)
  • Asheville Citizen-Times: "A wildfire burning on Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness area of Pisgah National Forest grew Nov. 22 to 126 acres, said Bruce MacDonald, spokesman with the North Carolina Forest Service."
  • Mountain Xpress: Members of the Buncombe Tourism Development Authority say they need to "seek more control of the tourism narrative. News stories, activist efforts and community voices, [they] said, too often raise concerns about the negative aspects of tourism without highlighting the TDA’s positive contributions."

Pete Kaliner

Pete Kaliner

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