By Nathan Watson, Opinions Editor
Once upon a time, the story goes, the major news organizations—think CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times—played the role of the “gatekeeper,” filtering out news content that was misleading or flat-out wrong before it could reach the eyes and ears of a gullible American public. Then came the rise of the internet, and with it digital news content whose accuracy and legitimacy could no longer be guaranteed. We now, apparently, call this “fake news.”
Among the outlets for fake news is Buzzfeed, the go-to source for listicles—articles often comprised entirely of headers, photos, and gifs—and clickbait, whose sole function is to generate advertisement revenue. Although they had mostly pursued their business-model independently of the scrutiny of the mainstream media and political figures, they apparently overstepped their boundaries when, last Tuesday, they published dozens of pages of uncorroborated and demeaning information from a dossier pertaining to President-elect Trump. Unsurprisingly, Trump mounted a counter-attack, taking to Twitter to call Buzzfeed what it is: a pile of garbage.
Fast forward a day to Trump’s first press-conference as president-elect. When asked by CNN reporter Jim Acosta to field a question, Trump refused to do so, calling CNN “terrible” and saying “you are fake news.” Predictably, Trump’s dismissal of a CNN reporter was met with much disdain, with the most extreme criticisms predicting that it represents the start of a fascist suppression of free press. More moderate responses have pointed out that Trump may have been misinformed or confused by his press secretary’s previous conflation of Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the dossier with CNN’s accurate reporting of its existence. As CNN’s Senior White House Correspondent Jack Tapper would later clarify, his network never did publish information from the uncorroborated dossier. At the same time, Trump did not specify his motive for calling CNN “fake news,” and previous rhetorical attacks against the network during his campaign suggests that this would have only been the tip of the iceberg in an already lengthy list of complaints. Trump’s attack on the legitimacy of CNN predates the Buzzfeed fiasco.
What is perhaps even more interesting than the press conference itself, however, is CNN’s relationship to the entire fake news controversy. Regardless of whether it explains Trump’s dislike for the network, CNN has in fact done much to blur the line between real news and “journalistic” entertainment. This is no more evident than in its role during the presidential elections.
Don’t believe me? Go back through some of CNN’s television and internet advertisements (they’re available on Youtube) for the presidential debates. One of my “favorites” (read: one of the most repulsive), is a 30-second clip that more closely resembles a preview for a Michael Bay movie. “Trump. Clinton.” the narrator dramatically begins over a background of special effects and super-hero close-ups. “It’s all been leading up to this.” Really? Nothing like prepping an audience to think critically about important issues by inducing “edge of your seat” suspense about which candidate will be the superhero and which the supervillain.
This is perhaps the less pernicious of the networks attempts to sensationalize politics, however. More troublingly, the genuine issues in each of the past three presidential elections were inevitably altered by the deliberate construction of compellingly dramatic and emotion-manipulating narratives—narratives that are more at home on reality television than in political campaigning.
Make no mistake about it, Trump did run a campaign of demagoguery and gave CNN much in the way of material to work with. Yet so did Clinton and, for that matter, Obama. Still don’t believe me? Keep that Youtube tab open and do a search for “Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Clinton.” Thanks to the cynicism of the Clinton campaign and the complicity of the major news networks, voters were unashamedly “informed” of Clinton’s narrative role in the election by none other than Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and in the wonderfully appropriate venue of a concert. Thankfully, the clip is still up on CNN’s Youtube channel. In it, Beyonce and Jay-Z address the audience, outlining why the policies of Clinton would have been more conducive to the welfare of the citizens of the United States . . . just kidding, it actually goes something like this: Beyoncé tells the audience that, just as anybody who cared about black people ought to have voted for Obama, anybody who cares about women ought to vote for Clinton. The crowd cheers. Then Jay-Z introduces the first performer presidential candidate Hillary Clinton against a background of applause and a DJ airhorn—yes, an airhorn! Clinton enters the stage, embraces her pal “Jay” (as she calls him), and affirms the previously crafted narrative. And thus it all comes together as a perfect example of both a major news organization performing irresponsibly, and a presidential nominee taking advantage of an unreasonable voter-base. As for the former, I would not call anything about it “real” news. Nor can I blame Trump for lumping it in the same category as Buzzfeed.
The problem is, once you have so cynically appealed to the public’s basest desires for entertainment and drama, you no longer have to report half-truths or lies to irresponsibly sway public opinion. The job has already been done. Once you have cleared the way for passion and partisanship to rule over reason and deliberation, you have already diminished the chances of your audience acting as responsible consumers of news information. And this, after all, is exactly what has caused the rise of fake news. The ad-revenue generated by enthusiastic sharing of digital content is exactly what generators of fake news are after. So sure, CNN—you may not report false information as egregiously as Buzzfeed, but you nonetheless kindled a fire under a “failing pile of garbage” all election season.