Perhaps the greatest public relations coup of our age has been the right wing’s swift and thorough hostile takeover of the term “fake news”. When the label began to go viral during the 2016 campaign season, it was generally applied to false stories that promoted the unprincipled mountebank who ended up in the White House. Within a matter of weeks, however, it had completely flipped and was being used almost exclusively to designate true stories that did not promote him. Almost overnight, Fox “News” went from ridiculing the very idea that fake news existed at all, to branding anything and everything “fake news” that doesn’t support white nationalism or other forms of right-wing radicalism. Every reactionary demagogue who’s ever crawled from under a rock jumped on this lucrative bandwagon. It was inevitable that this would include a savvy hustler like Ben Shapiro, whom we’ve encountered before.
A case in point is his article for the ever-entertaining National Review that is worth examining mostly because it’s very typical of how wingers have redefined fake news to suit their ends, and how they pull switcheroos in general. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t be discussing it — I sure as hell don’t want to give him any more attention than warranted.) It’s titled A Field Guide to Harvard’s Field Guide on ‘Fake News’. Sounds like he’s trying to debunk a debunking and now someone needs to debunk his debunking of a debunking. You’ve heard of that old curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
Here’s his beginning, with added annotation for your convenience:
Last week, Harvard released a new research guide on “fake news.” “Fake news,” of course, is the source of all evil, according to the Left. [Has anybody, left, right or center, ever claimed that fake news is the problem?] It’s only thanks to lies that (45) was elected! [Largely quite true] Instead of targeting stories that are completely false, however, the Left applies the label of “fake news” to outlets that report factual stories but draw political conclusions. [Does this mean he believes Fox is leftist?]
In other words, he realizes that the “left-leaning” (i.e., not rabidly right-wing) CNN isn’t really fake news, but is okay with it being labeled as such anyway because he doesn’t approve of its slant (or at least thinks he doesn’t). Exactly the kind of attitude he’s accusing “the left” of having.
Not only is he confused about what fake news is, he’s even confused about the specific resource he’s trying to attack.
Nonetheless, the Harvard guide, written by “social justice” professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College, purports to compile a handy-dandy list of fake-news sites to avoid.
One must infer that the “Harvard guide” he’s referring to (it was published just before his attack) is Harvard Library’s webpage Fake News, Misinformation and Propaganda (note the broader scope than just fake news). But for what it’s worth, it’s not referred to as a “field guide”, More important, it does not list any specific outlets to avoid. Nor was it written by Prof. Zimdars. But other than that.
What the site actually does is list links to investigative resources. These include news databases like LexisNexis, browser plugins like This Is Fake, and fact-checking sites like Politifact and Snopes. These latter are especially troubling to true believing wingers. They absolutely hate fact checkers, and consequently circulate rumors (i.e., fake news) in an effort to discredit them. Whenever they encounter facts that contradict their beliefs, they assume the facts must have been planted by George Soros in an effort to make us all commie drones, confiscate our guns and steal our precious fluids.
And oh yes, the last link on the page, down at the very bottom right corner, will take you to a site compiled by Prof. Zimdars. called False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources. Which, by the way, Mr. Shapiro, contains only a passing mention of “fake news” in particular. But hey, who cares about details?
Granted, the sinister influence of Prof. Zimdars is also somewhat evident on the Harvard Library site in a little box that lists some tips for vetting sources of (mis)information; these were adapted from Zimdars:
“Consider the source”? “Check the URL”?? “Look for visual clues”??? “Get a second opinion”???? “Put your browser to work”????? Such shocking leftist indoctrination!! And most shocking of all, look at what the Harvard librarians apparently tacked onto the bottom. Really, ask a librarian?!? We all know that libraries are just timeless repositories of leftist propaganda, don’t we?
But what happens if we dare to click on that link and travel to the badlands of the Zimdars site? Well, if we do, we will find (brace yourself) even more tips. And then, finally, at the bottom, that notorious list that apparently started Ben’s snow flaking.
The original version of the roster was compiled by Prof. Zimdars for a class as a suggested starting point for further investigation. It was never intended to be exhaustive or definitive. Subsequently, it went viral and was expanded and revised a time or two. And subsequently, according to Prof. Zimdars, she was harassed by fans of some of the sites she called out. No surprise there.
Shapiro takes exception to the list because it contains so many right-wing sites. As usual for right-wingers who howl because they have been targeted by watch dogs, it never seems to occur to him that maybe such sites just might deserve to be targeted. The list also includes a few non-rightwing sites, but he glosses over that, being more concerned instead with the ones it doesn’t include. He does mention the inclusion of AlterNet, which is pegged as “credible”, and tries to counter that with a recent AlterNet headline: “The T—p Dystopian Nightmare: Nuclear War, Climate Change, and a Clash of Civilizations Are All on the Horizon.” Gotta do a little better than that, Ben. That headline is barely even hyperbolic — if at all.
He’s also staggeringly inept in his defense of his own site, The Daily Wire, which he says is denoted as having “extreme bias” (it’s now mere “bias”, an upgrade it’s hardly merited):
I’ll proudly state that National Review and the Daily Wire are more honest than CNN; both outlets have an editorial point of view reflected in their content, but neither mistakes news for opinion or opinion for news.
We’ll pause a moment while you catch your breath.
It’s hard to say which is more inept — the reference to CNN or the one to National Review. The former is another instance of mindlessly joining the bizarre lockstep self-defeating scapegoating of CNN by wingers, a campaign rather like attempting to show off your athletic prowess by trying to kick yourself in one testicle. And by “proudly” crawling into bed with the National Review he is associating with a reactionary rag that, as we’ve discussed in three previous posts, is anything but honest and reliable. Meanwhile, NR posts his little screed under the heading “Harvard fake news guide proves leftist bias”. Really, Ben? An “honest” and reliable journal cites a single (supposed) instance to “prove” a broad generalization?
To give credit where it’s due, Shapiro also includes some advice which he believes will help combat fake news. Here are the headings, each of which is detailed a little more in the article:
1) Locate the information intersection.
(i.e., where different sources agree)
2) Wait 24 hours to believe supremely controversial claims.
3) Anonymous sources are anonymous sources.
4) Outlets that make corrections are more reliable.
5) Consider the ideology.
6) Read the whole article.
Those are really very good tips. Damn good tips. Astoundingly good tips, considering the source. They’re very similar to recommendations made by many other people (including yours truly) and even suspiciously similar to advice offered by the infamous Prof. Zimdars. (And note that CNN is rather conscientious about the principle of correcting its errors, while Fox, Breitbart, etc. are not. ) But with the exception of number 2, they’re not particularly relevant to fake news.
Weeding out fake news is, for the most part, a much simpler affair: just get your news from journalists (preferably a variety of them) rather than from pundits, hacks and the Internet rumor mill. There are occasional ifs, ands and buts, but this basic and painfully obvious principle will solve about 99 percent of the problem. Hell, even a cesspool like Fox has some real journalists who report real (albeit severely biased) news. It’s the talking headlesses on the spin shows who really take you down a rabbit hole.
So what are Shapiro’s tips good for? Cutting through the spin, bias and distortion. Again, he is conflating ideological subjectivity with outright fabrication. Just as he’s accusing “the left” of doing.
And it surely goes without saying that he’s not one to follow his own advice. And fortunately for his bottom line, neither are his fans. If everyone assiduously pursued his recommendations on this matter, his cult following would vanish quite rapidly.
Follow the Propaganda Professor on Twitter @profofprop