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Misreporting, Bias, and Fake News

SNA (Tokyo) — Defense Minister Taro Kono’s denunciation of NHK and the mainstream news media as “fake news” for reporting that his ministry had decided to give up the Araya Training Area in Akita city as host for an Aegis Ashore facility was a cynical ploy on his part, but it did highlight once again that many people misunderstand the news media in rather fundamental ways.

If Kono truly believes that the Japanese news media got the story wrong, then the responsible manner of expressing his displeasure would have been to accuse them of misreporting the facts.

There is no media organization, even the most careful, that can entirely avoid misreporting. This can result from transmitting information from dishonest, misguided, or misinformed sources, or else it can derive from simple mistakes on the part of reporters and editors. Almost all serious, professional journalists try to keep their errors to a minimum, but they will creep in nonetheless.

Those who insist that news media loses all credibility because there are some instances of misreporting are either rather immature individuals or else those whose own commitment to facts is something less than profound.

Journalism is conducted by fallible human beings, often in a rushed and time-sensitive context. It is the “first draft of history.” And like all first drafts, it will need some editing down the road before it should be regarded as entirely authoritative.

Of course, not everything that is wrong in the news media is the result of simple mistakes. There is also the issue of bias.

As we have noted before, those who call for “unbiased news” are demanding something which cannot exist in the real world.

The question of what possesses “news value” can never be separated from the people making the judgments, nor can it be separated from the political or commercial interests of those who pay the salaries.

Government-funded news services like the BBC or NHK might carve out a certain degree of editorial independence and become valuable sources of public information, particularly in terms of reporting vital non-political news items regarding such matters as weather events and natural disasters. But when it comes to coverage of their home governments and its more sensitive interests, there are clearly limits to their independence. If the regime feels they’ve become too critical, these news outlets can be reigned in with budget cuts (or merely threats of budget cuts) and sometimes with executive personnel changes.

It is much the same with corporate news. While the better companies do give their editors and journalists a wide degree of independence, at the end of the day these are still commercial enterprises that inherently serve the forces of nationalism, the establishment, and the monied elite of their countries. Their news product still has genuine value, but it is not the “unbiased news” that some people believe they are seeking.

Unattainable public demands for “unbiased news” are somewhat complicated by the fact that mainstream journalist training tells them—quite laudably—that their job is simply to report the news “without fear or favor” as an old New York Times slogan put it. Many journalists, perhaps most journalists, sincerely endeavor to find the facts and report them in as fair and accurate a manner as they are able. This is part of the basic code of professional journalists, and it is a necessary attitude to do the job well.

At the same time, journalists with a higher degree of institutional savvy and self-awareness will also perceive that while what is offered in the pages of their newspapers or the airwaves of their stations may be overwhelmingly factual, it is still not entirely free of various kinds of bias.

The SNA’s approach to this conundrum—following the example of some other “progressive” news agencies—is to advertise our bias rather than deny that it exists. We state openly that we are biased on the side of democratic forms of government, a suspicion of oligarchies and other concentrations of public power, and that we have a commitment to fairer, more decent, non-discriminatory societies, aiming at the common benefit of all humanity. We are not neutral when we face the oppressor and the oppressed.

All of which brings us to the issue of “fake news,” which is something entirely different from the simple misreporting of facts or the biases inherent in all news organizations and individual editors and reporters.

Again, it’s not surprising that much of the public is confused about the concept of fake news, because there has been a deliberate and sustained effort to obfuscate its realities.

The term came to international prominence in November 2016 and it originally referred to something quite specific, which were shadowy companies such as Disinfomedia which used sockpuppet media outlets such as the “Denver Guardian” to spread false news stories on the internet, often about the 2016 US presidential election.

The fake news outlets dressed themselves up as legitimate news organizations creating webpages that mimicked professional outfits, but their purpose was never to adhere to the basic standards of journalism. Rather, they aimed to influence public opinion by reinforcing biases and sowing confusion through viral internet postings. They were, straight up, fake news outlets.

Since many of these fake news outlets attacked Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and appeared to favor Republican candidate Donald Trump, and probably played a part in Trump’s narrow electoral system victory, they began gaining considerable attention from the mainstream US media.

It was at this point that something quite incredible occurred—President-Elect Donald Trump hijacked the term “fake news” in a morally despicable but highly effective manner; so much so that most people now associate the concept of “fake news” with Trump himself, as if he had coined the term.

In Trump’s formulation, it is the US mainstream corporate media that is the “fake news,” not the shadowy online sockpuppets. While he didn’t draw out an established definition for the term, he nevertheless made it clear enough that any negative reporting about himself, his administration, or his allies was automatically to be regarded as fake news by his followers. Nothing the mainstream media reported should be trusted; and the only true source for information about Donald Trump was Donald Trump.

Put another way, Trump rejects all news media authority, including its traditional role as a watchdog for the public interest. It was part of his broader attack on all institutions—whether the courts or the Congress or whatever—that claimed to possess powers that could override his own, or even to play the role of referee.

“Fake news” in this sense has become a slogan aiming to discredit all news media that maintains a critical stance. It is a regime’s rallying cry to its followers to embrace authoritarianism and to reject independent thought.

This is why Defense Minister Taro Kono’s employment of the term “fake news” last week is of considerable concern. By using this language he is saying much more than that the story about the Aegis Ashore facility has been misreported, but rather that the news media as a whole is illegitimate and that only the government’s pronouncements should be believed.

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