Fake News: A Definition and Discussion


So I wasn’t intending for this to be a political blog when I created it. But alas, I think that’s what it’s going to become, at least for now.

Anyway, we all seem to be talking about fake news these days and in light of recent events I had some thoughts. If you haven’t heard, CNN broke a story about a two page summary brought to the president and president-elect of thirty-five pages of memos about unsubstantiated claims that Russia has compromised Donald Trump. These memos have apparently been circulating around Washington and various media outlets for awhile, but it was the fact that intelligence agencies finally felt compelled to inform Obama and Trump of them in an intelligence briefing that seems to have sparked CNN to break the story. Of course CNN didn’t go into any details as to the context of the memos, since their claims could not be substantiated. They just said that they exist and were brought to the attention of those at the highest level of government.

As I said earlier, multiple media outlets had had their hands on these memos for awhile, and once CNN broke the story, it was only a matter of time before one of them decided to give more details as to their content.  That ended up being BuzzFeed.

Instead of summarizing the contents, or just making vague hints like other news outlets have done, BuzzFeed made the very controversial decision to put the documents in their entirety up on their website. The post in which they did this also made it very clear, in my opinion, that the claims made in the memos could not be verified after many attempts at doing so and that there were plenty of reasons to believe that many of them might be false. Still, they published the memos with a note that pretty much said “decide for yourself.”

Then, at Trump’s news conference on Wednesday, it was the journalist from CNN’s turn to ask a question and the president-elect refused to let him do so and called his organization “fake news” for breaking the story that the memos exist and were brought to the attention of the president and president-elect. He did this despite the fact that they stressed that the memos’ claims were unverifiable without going into any specifics as to what those claims were.

If he had been talking to a reporter from BuzzFeed, perhaps I would have sympathized a little. They were the ones, after all, who made the controversial decision to actually publish the dossiers in their entirety, which could have been a breech of traditional journalistic ethics. CNN just said that they existed and had been brought to the attention of the president and president-elect. In my opinion, if a media outlet knows of documents that make claims that the next president of the United States could be compromised by a foreign entity and that the intelligence community felt that those documents held enough weight to be brought to the attention of those highest in the US government, of course it is their duty to report on it.

But Trump calls it fake news.

In my understanding, fake news is an intentionally and completely made up story published with the intent for readers to believe that it’s true.

CNN is not fake news. When they broke the story, they reported that:

  • the memos existed (true)
  • they were brought to the attention of the president and president-elect in an intelligence briefing (true)
  • that they contained unverifiable claims that Donald Trump could be compromised by Russia (true, well the claims might not be, but the fact that the memos contain them and that they are unverifiable is)

They also made the decision to refrain from publishing the dossiers themselves or going into detail about any of the claims because they are, again, unsubstantiated. 

In light of that, I believe it was reprehensible the way Donald Trump treated that CNN reporter, not only because he was embarrassingly rude. Calling the organization “fake news,” in combination with the remarks he made at the beginning of the press conference about how he stopped doing news conferences for awhile because of “inaccurate” news, makes it clear that he intends to call all media outlets that publish reporting that casts him in less than positive light “fake news.” This is dangerous because it treads on our right of freedom of the press. Half the country believes everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth, so saying such things could cause legitimate damage to organizations he disparages. We see it when he tweets negative comments about a company and then their stock prices fall. If something like this happens to news organizations he criticizes as well, soon such organizations will be afraid to publish anything negative about him and there goes the idea of the press being a check on the powerful.

At least the other half of the country knows not to take seriously claims of fake news from a President-elect who wants to appoint a former head of Breitbart to his cabinet.


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