Peter Van Buren: Can’t Judge Fake News in the Dark

This isn’t about Trump. It’s about judging the media, whoever and whatever they report on. It is about reading critically when so much out there is just simply inaccurate. Not maybe inaccurate, pure dead solid perfect stupid. So don’t call me a nazi.

Step One is to note if the story you’re reading/seeing is all or mostly unsourced, or anonymously sourced. Red flag.

Step Two is to see if the story is bombastic, dramatic, something that really makes you angry. Something that adds to or dovetails with something you already believe is true. If it sounds like gossip, that’s probably all it is. Red flag.

Step Three is to check if the story is a negative one about a person or subject from a media outlet that celebrates its partisan position. Red flag.

Congratulations! You’ve got a sample target, and are ready to apply a basic test.

Ask who would know the information, why would they tell anyone, and apply a light sniff test: does it make any sense at all?

Here’s one to practice on, courtesy of the New York Times. There are no sources at all for the most part, and the story is bombastic, suggesting the people in the White House are dumber than third graders. The Times has had trouble with objectivity concerning the administration. Much of the story sounds like mean gossip.

We’ll zoom in on a couple of opening lines, keeping in mind this was presented on the front page as news:

President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.

So the venerable New York Times reports Trump’s aides sit in the dark because they do not know how to operate light switches.

Seriously? Light switches are rarely complex. Those aides have been on the job for about two weeks and have not figured out how to turn on the lights? And by the way, the White House is full of nonpolitical, permanent staff, including servants, janitors, the Secret Service, secretaries. Hell, you can dial zero on the house phone and ask for maintenance. It is simply impossible for the Times’ statement to be true, and it would have had to have been reported by one of the aides themselves, because no one else was there, or could see what was happening in the dark.

Next up: the line about visitors wandering the halls looking for an exit.

Access to the White House is as controlled as anywhere in the United States. One does not simply walk around trying doors. Visitors are escorted, the Secret Service is stationed everywhere, and there are cameras and motion detectors. Being alone inside the White House is a privilege allotted to very, very, very few people ever. Visitors are badged and checked in and out. The building itself is not a suburban movie theater, with lots of doors opening out into the parking lot. Visitors go in and out via a limited number of portals. It is simply impossible for the Times’ statement to be true.

Later in the same story the Times reports:

When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.

While the image of old man Trump wandering around the place in his robe and slippers, perhaps hair amuss, is amusing, the statement is ridiculous as news.

If the White House is hyper-controlled space, the Residence, the second floor where the president actually lives, is doubly so. Access is strictly limited to those personally invited by the president, staff who have worked there decades, and a handful of Secret Service stationed outside key doors. The idea is to offer a respite, a personal space for the family.

The White House staff and Secret Service have a long tradition of not leaking intimate details of the First Family. They would throw away a decades-long career if they did. Neither group has leaked salacious gossip over the years about presidential affairs, husband and wife fights, drunkenness and the like in real time. It is incredulous that the Times would have any idea what Trump does inside his own living room.

Another caution would be reports that purport to know what a senior policy maker is “thinking,” the very ideas and feelings in his head. While anything is of course possible, how likely is it that someone in public life would voice those things to people junior enough to leak them (oh but you want to believe it, don’t you?) Here’s the Times again:

Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters – an important source of feedback and validation – and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests.

The first line is of course easily destroyable, as the president can invite anyone into the White House, and most anyone would be happy to rush in. And don’t his son-in-law and daughter Ivanka live just down the street in DC? In addition, should Trump want to talk with “fans and supporters,” there is that telephone thingie. Obama famously had a guarded private number for a handful of friends, and Bill Clinton, keeping with his times, used a personal FAX machine whose number was changed regularly and distributed to very few longtime associates.

And by the way, how could the Times, or anyone really, know Trump is “increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job”? What does pinched even mean? Did someone deep inside Trump’s inner circle overhear him say “Dammit, I am feeling pinched as hell” and rush to whisper that in a reporter’s ear? Can someone be “increasingly” pinched after only some two weeks on the job?

The piece goes on and on, claiming Trump obsessed over the drapes in the Oval Office, watches TV during lunch (!), somehow indicated to somebody that the Oval Office “is a totem of a victory that validates him as a serious person,” and startlingly, “ordered that four hardback chairs be placed in a semicircle around his desk” which seems to be important for some reason never really explained.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.

  • Don

    What is true is that Trump has no agenda on anything.

    But why bother responding to you when you don’t stick to your story by rebutting any challenge to what you say? You got all the comments you deserve for not doing that.

    • Jessica S.

      If you bother to comment, Don, don’t undermine it by saying “why bother?”. Otherwise, why would anyone consider what you say to be valuable?

  • Who the f**k doesn’t watch TV during lunch. An elitist slam if I’ve ever heard one.

    Trump’s first couple weeks have already been an unmitigated dumpster fire. You don’t have to make random crap up if you wanna hurt the bastard. Just report on his policies. They speak for themselves and say more than their share of dirty words without any creative license.

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  • BrotherJonah

    Media is just the plural of medium. Like data is the plural of datum. So when somebody says “the media is” or “the data proves” they’re quickly converting Latin into his own version of English and doesn’t know Latin from the start.

    A lot of people (more than would be necessary to stomp my head open is my definition of “a lot”) use Latin wrongly. I probably do. But they complain about the “media” as a singular entity. This leads people to believe either the original assumption that it IS a singular entity or that the person dislikes believes that all people in the business of communicating either fact, fiction or opinion are in the one single monolithic conspiracy that everybody therein thinks in an organized manner as all the others, a true hive mentality. By the way, anybody or anything happens to be singular. Gives me a little bit of a warm fuzzy when I get to plug universally available public education.

    This doesn’t excuse fake news. Nor does the notion that “everybody” (also singular) does it.