The Day I Learned We Had a Fake News Problem

Anderson Cooper has done some impressive journalism, but his employer leaves a lot to be desired. (Source)

It was 2007. I was in the spring semester of my freshman year in high school. Two years before, I had undergone a profound change. For years, I had dreams of becoming an astrophysicist, but after watching a transformational documentary, I decided that the best use of my life would be in politics, to right the wrongs of this world. I became very interested in learning more and jumped right in, and I ended up being very active in the 2006 elections.

I saw channels like CNN and MSNBC as trusted new sources. I thought they were serious about reporting the issues that mattered. I already knew that Fox News was packed with frauds and regularly reported misinformation. CNN and MSNBC aired the facts. They were, in my view, two channels that held themselves to a higher standard. Then Anna Nicole Smith died.

For several weeks, all I saw covered by those stations was her death and the legal battle over her infant daughter. There were still two wars going on. New Orleans remained in ruins after Hurricane Katrina. The Bush Administration continued to ooze abuses and failures. The subprime housing bubble was ready to burst. In spite of all of this, the things America needed to know the most were the details of this reality star and playmate’s death.

I mean no disrespect for Smith. In fact, the circumstances of her death are quite tragic. To lose a son in the way that she did is a wound that no parent should ever receive. Concurrently, I think the egregious insult was in how much the media meddled in the Smith family’s personal affairs. It seemed so disrespectful, so irrelevant, so fake.

I know that most people have an idea of “fake news” as being the dissemination of lies. That might be fake news in its purest form, but there are other ways news can be fake. In the case of CNN and MSNBC, which are for-profit, the way that corporate bias can skew the narrative also creates a kind of fakeness. It attempts to pull our attention away from what really matters. It airs whatever sells. Some of it may technically be factual, but that does not make it any less phony.

Do CNN and MSNBC have a liberal bias too? It is hard to tell, but they do not need political bias like Fox News to be fake. Their corporate bias does the job just as well. That is the tragedy here. Fox News’s fakeness was appalling, but at least we could still say that one bad channel did not mean there was a bigger, more worrisome trend at work. Smith’s death fundamentally changed that perception for me.

February 8, 2007: That was the day that Smith died. That was the day that CNN proved a sellout. That was the day that MSNBC abandoned scruples. That was the day that it joined Fox News as a “Big Three” of bogus journalism. It was almost ten years before I would hear the term, but that was the day that I learned we had a fake news problem.

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