Mike Cernovich of “Danger and Play” website: “Thinking is the most important skill a human being can have. Rationality is what separates us from all other animals …”
Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes: “What stories have you published that turned out to not be right?”
Cernovich: “None, that come to mind.”
Anyone who saw this recent episode of “60 Minutes” on fake news, which attracted some 14.7 million viewers, can understand the absurd contradiction of these statements.
Here’s a Southern California attorney and web producer who makes a keen observation about the primal importance of critical thinking. And he then proceeds to offer none.
This is the guy who produced a story that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease, a tale based solely on the opinion of an anesthesiologist who had never before examined her. He also was one of the alt-right activists who promoted a story, first aired on a white supremacist Twitter account eight days before the election, that Hillary Clinton was a ringleader of a child sex-trafficking ring based out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. It was a story that eventually led 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch to drive from North Carolina to “self-investigate” the conspiracy theory with the help of an AR-15 rifle. After firing three shots inside the pizza parlor, Welch surrendered after realizing what many knew all along — that the story was hogwash.
Still, when asked to name an article of his that warranted correcting, Cernovich was stumped. His contention to Pelley: Everything he publishes is “100 percent true.”
The main purpose of this column is to invite you to a discussion that Press Democrat Executive Director Catherine Barnett and I will be having at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 23 at Copperfield’s Books in Sebastopol on “What is real news?” Our intent is to offer insights on how we go about choosing and editing the content of this newspaper on a daily basis and what we do to ensure accuracy and accountability in an era of “alternative facts.” This includes acknowledging when we make mistakes and correcting them.
But first I would like to talk more about fake news.
By this, I don’t mean the president’s definition. He seems to apply the term to anything with which he disagrees, from stories about his tax returns to any discussion of Russian influence on the Nov. 8 election. What I’m talking about is the kind of fake news pushed by people like Cernovich, who profit from page-views rather than precision.
Last fall, the 45 students in my Tuesday night news-writing class at Sonoma State University sought to define this kind of “fake news,” and they came up with a definition that’s as good as any I’ve seen. They said it was: “A news report published or released with knowledge of its falsehood, or willful disregard for its accuracy, and with the intent to deceive the public.” The two key parts of this definition are “willful disregard for accuracy” and “intent to deceive.”
This would describe stories pushed by people who report such things as how the Pope endorsed Trump, how President Obama had banned the pledge of allegiance and how Trump has a cocaine problem.
These all require readers to believe three things: One, that whatever nonsense they are pushing is the truth; two, that their stories meet some professional standard for accuracy; and, three, that the reason you’re hearing this information from them and no one else is because the traditional news media have conspired to keep it a secret. Thus, stories like “pizzagate” are born.