Finley: Fake news in eye of beholder

Nolan Finley

Fake news is making news.

Warnings are going up about phony stories raging across the internet and influencing our politics. One implication is that false reporting helped do in Hillary Clinton, and are another reason Donald Trump is not the legitimate president.

Like so many things, fake news seems to be in the eye of the beholder. The leaked Clinton campaign emails, for example, may have been despicably obtained and strategically released, particularly if it was the Russians who purloined them, but they appear genuine.

Fake news, by definition, is not true. Or it may contain a nugget of truth that is surrounded by distortion.

But the fake news charge is now being tagged on perfectly credible reports, and even on straight-out opinion pieces.

My colleague, Ingrid Jacques, wrote a piece about Betsy DeVos for the op-ed page of a national publication. She took a favorable view of her nomination as education secretary, and defended her record as a school reformer.

It was the author’s opinion, supported by factually accurate details. And yet Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tweeted it out to her followers as “an example of fake news.”

Many of those sounding the loudest warnings about fake news are also its biggest purveyors. Clinton recently lectured America about what she called an epidemic of fake news. Yet there may never have been a phonier story than the one she sold to the American people claiming an anti-Muslim video triggered the deadly Benghazi embassy attacks.

Or how about outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who now is stumping against bogus reporting? It was Reid who pulled from thin air the 2012 claim that Mitt Romney had not paid any income taxes. That story went viral during the presidential campaign, though Romney in fact had paid $2 million in income taxes the prior year.

Speaking of suspect news about taxes, Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times Co., recently discussed the dangers of fake news with the Detroit Economic Club, decrying the standard that holds unless the victim of phony reporting proves the information is false, it stands as true.

In October, The Times obtained information from Trump’s 1995 tax return, indicating he reported a $916 million loss. The newspaper hired tax experts who extrapolated the loss could have allowed Trump to avoid paying 18 years of income taxes.

That was impossible to verify without seeing the subsequent tax returns, which Trump hasn’t released. And yet because the candidate didn’t disprove the claim, could have avoided taxes became did avoid once the story reached the campaign trail.

The internet is fertile ground for fantasy, and as Thompson implored, consumers of news must be more discerning. There’s no hierarchy of credibility on the web; stories from The Times pop up alongside those from Bob the Basement Blogger. It’s getting harder to tell truth from fiction.

But we still must be judicious with the Fake News label, so as not to allow it to discredit legitimate reporting that some simply find inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Nolan Finley’s book “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.