Learning the News: Dangers of feeling superior

Trump haters are so obsessed with signs of his downfall that some are resorting to the sort of fake news that scandalized the 2016 campaign., writes Roger Plothow.

I generally don’t like generalizations because, by definition, they can’t be entirely accurate.

On the other hand, sometimes they can be useful in capturing a trend or a big picture, so long as they aren’t taken too far.

Washington Post columnist Abby Ohlheiser gave us a fat, juicy generalization in a recent column in talking about the motivations for inventing fake news by liberals compared to conservatives.

She quoted Brook Binkowski, an editor at the fact-checking web site Snopes, who said this:

“The right, their big failing is that they think they have the moral upper-hand. The left? Theirs is that they believe they have the intellectual upper-hand. Both can be exploited.”

There is, of course, no empirical data to support Binkowski’s claim. She’s relying on anecdotal evidence and her own experience, but there is a certain logic to her theory.

Liberals now have a president in the White House they despise more than any president in recent history – or perhaps ever, period. That is giving rise to an increasing number of anti-Trump fake news stories. One of the more recent was a report that Trump’s Twitter followers had magically jumped by 5 million almost overnight, which led to all sorts of conspiracy theories.

Hillary Clinton even appeared to buy the story when she referred to it in a speech. It was an easy story to bat down, as many fake news stories are. A quick chat with a Twitter spokesperson revealed that Trump’s following had risen, all right – from 30.6 million to 31.1 million, or 500,000. Did someone simply add an extra zero?

The Daily Kos recently opined that Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord – something he repeatedly campaigned on – was motivated by the awkward handshake between the president and French President Emmanuel Macron. That’s just goofy.

Trump haters are becoming so obsessed with signs of his imminent downfall that some are resorting to the sort of fake news and specious commentary that scandalized the 2016 campaign. Aside from the obvious problem that fake news is simply bad for the society, it makes it harder to decipher the legitimacy of the strange news that comes out of the Trump White House almost daily.

It also allows the administration to claim that essentially every news story about it is fake, a strategy that may work in the short-term but is bound to eventually fail.

I was giving my media literacy lesson to a history class at Idaho Falls High School recently when a student asked me why the media seem so obsessed with Trump. It’s a question we hear a lot in one form or another. My answer is simple: He creates more news than just about any prior president. Between early-morning tweets, a steady stream of leaks from his own staff and his eagerness to embrace controversy, he is a fantastically newsworthy president, the likes of which we’ve not seen for at least a couple of generations.

Spreading fake news is never anything but destructive. An unjustified sense of moral or intellectual superiority is dangerous. If we don’t start ratcheting this down, and fast, the consequences are going to be worse than we can imagine.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.