Some in the public thinking business have posited that Donald Trump is not a half-cocked loon, but a brilliant manipulator of the media, and thus the entire U.S., over which he now presides.
Their basis for these claims is showing how he has artfully shot out Tweets perfectly timed to overshadow, these pundits argue, more substantive issues that the media should be addressing.
While I am not sure if I buy these pronouncements about Trump, I am certain about the power of distraction.
While the same punditry setting out to deconstruct Trumplandia claims that fake news is itself the distraction, as Sarah Kendzior confronts, the histrionics about fake news are distracting us from a very real and very ugly truth: having crossed the Bigfoot line, mainstream media, not fake news, spawned Trumplandia.
Let me illustrate.
Consider the lede from Woman A Leading Authority On What Shouldn’t Be In Poor People’s Grocery Carts:
With her remarkable ability to determine exactly how others should be allocating their limited resources for food, local woman Carol Gaither is considered to be one of the foremost authorities on what poor people should and should not have in their grocery carts, sources said Thursday.
From 2014, this is satire from The Onion, a publication in the broad family of fake news (although satire has not the malicious intent of the more recently purposefully placed fake news designed to be click-bait and make money).
What this satirizes, however, is incredibly important since it challenges the mostly misguided and nasty stereotypes that many if not most Americans believe about people who are poor: it is the fault of the poor, laziness, that they are impoverished, and thus, they do not deserve the same things hard working people do deserve (as in luxuries such as sweets).
We might argue that no reasonable person would believe a story from The Onion to be true, but it happens, and well before all the hand-wringing about fake news and presidential politics.
Yet, what is far more disturbing is that despite concurrent charges the sky is falling because the expert is dead, the U.S. still functions with an expert class of media, the primary cable news networks such as Fox and CNN as well as the last surviving newspapers, notably The New York Times.
While many may cast aspersions on the “liberal media,” most people remain solidly faithful that the NYT is reporting credibly.
And here is the irony: the NYT and mainstream media are overwhelmingly meeting the standards of mainstream media, and those standards of “both sides” and objective journalism are far more harmful and dangerous than fake news.
Just one week before Trump’s inauguration, the NYT published In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda, which in only a few days prompted this from state government:
A lawmaker in Tennessee wants to ban people from using food stamps to buy items that have no nutritional value. The bill was proposed by Republican Rep. Sheila Butt ….
House Bill 43 would prohibit people from using food stamps to purchase items high in calories, sugar or fat, according to the Tennessean. That would include soda, ice cream, candy, cookies and cake.
However, there is more indirect truth in the satirical The Onion article than in the NYT article, as Joe Soss reports:
In a New York Times story over the weekend, Anahad O’Connor massages and misreports a USDA study to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about food stamps. For his trouble, the editors placed it on the front page. Readers of the newspaper of record learn that the end result of tax dollars spent on food assistance is a grocery cart full of soda. No exaggeration. The inside headline for the story is “What’s in the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household? Lots of Sugary Soda,” and the front-page illustration shows a shopping cart containing almost nothing but two-liter pop bottles.
Yes, the key words above are “misreports” and “stereotypes.”
Let’s be clear here: this is nonsense. It’s a political hack job against a program that helps millions of Americans feed themselves, and we should all be outraged that the New York Times has disguised it as a piece of factual news reporting on its front page.
There are two major problems here. First, O’Connor misrepresents the findings of the USDA report. Second, O’Connor’s article is a case study in the dark arts of making biased reporting appear even-handed. Let’s start with the facts.
Not as sexy, and not what the general public believes, the USDA report actually has a much different message:
A November 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined the food shopping patterns of American households who currently receive nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) compared with those not receiving aid. Its central finding? “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.”
Vallas and Robins note as well that the NYT/O’Connor misreporting is about more than feeding misguided stereotypes about people in poverty:
Beyond the article’s inaccuracies, there is a broader problem with this kind of reporting. It reinforces an “us versus them” narrative—as though “the poor” are a stagnant class of Americans permanently dependent on aid programs. The New York Times’ own past reporting has shown that this simply isn’t the case. Research by Mark Rank, which the paper featured in 2013, shows that four in five Americans will face at least a year of significant economic insecurity during their working years. And analysis by the White House Council on Economic Advisers finds that 70 percent of Americans will turn to a means-tested safety net program such as nutrition assistance at some point during their lives.
Now if we return to our current gnashing of teeth about the rise of fake news and the death of the expert, we should be confronting a couple far more pressing facts:
- Mainstream media are mostly conducting press-release journalism; are often bending to the market and not reaching for truth, justice, and the American way; and fail our democracy because of traditional norms of objectivity and “both sides” journalism.
- The public in the U.S. is not anti-expert, but seeking the appearance of expertise  that confirms what they already believe—even when what they believe is total hogwash, and worse (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.).
Maybe we have a really ugly paradox here also: publications like The Onion and satirical programming such as work by John Oliver and Saturday Night Live are serving the American public and the ideal of democracy and freedom far better as fake news than even the so-called best mainstream media are doing.
Satirists are not bound to simplistic conventions of objectivity (ironically, to be neutral is to endorse the status quo), and are critical instead. Journalists refuse to embrace the power of a critical free press, and thus, are eager to blame fake news, to use it as a distraction.
Finally, then, we must wonder with the recent revelations about plagiarism by Monica Crowley, a popular rightwing expert, if O’Connor merely cribbed his NYT expose from The Onion, where three years ago they fabricated:
“All that junk she’s buying is just loaded with sugar, too,” said Gaither, identifying with uncanny speed another critical flaw in her fellow shopper’s grocery selection. “No wonder her kids are acting out like that.”…
“The other day, I saw a woman who bought a box of name-brand Frosted Flakes because, apparently, the generic kind wasn’t fancy enough for her,” said Gaither, swiftly and decisively calculating that bagged cereal would have cost half as much. “And guess who’s going to be paying the difference in the end?”
A speculation that does make sense because reading The Onion is far more entertaining and informative than plowing through a government report.
 I know this appears to read like a piece from The Onion, but Republican Rep. Butt is real; The Onion would have used Ophelia Butt.
 Consider that the century-old debate between Creationism and evolution has morphed into the rise of Intelligent Design (replacing creationism) as pseudo-science to battle with traditional science, evolution.