A Short History of Fake News

“I think I know where we’re headed here. Before we get there, I want to say something to you. You know and I know that we can’t tell you what to print or what not to. We hope the press will act responsibly, but when you don’t, there ain’t a lot we can do about it.” — Assistant U.S. Attorney General Wells to journalist Megan Carter in the 1981 thriller “Absence of Malice”

The recent hoopla about “fake news” had me thinking these past few weeks, because this phenomenon has existed for at least a century. Hollywood, in fictionalized form, has exposed these purveyors of fabrication. The most famous and lauded of them is “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ fictionalized life of the real and very powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst, who raised yellow journalism to an art form while making himself millions.

Films like “Broadcast News,” “Network,” and “Absence of Malice” continued to show us why we cannot be passive as we take in the news. They do that by presenting compelling stories that remind us that not many journalists can meet the crucial requirements of their trade — the ability to remain skeptical while reporting any story, whatever their personal feelings.

Journalists like the great Edward R. Murrow were revered because they were so rare. As the late Richard C. Hottelet, the last of the famous Murrow boys, said in an interview with the Hartford Courant in 2003, “It was not our job to inspire people, to educate, to move them. It was our job to tell them what was going on.”

It is important to remind ourselves that the news divisions of those days were not housed under entertainment, nor were they part of multinational corporations like General Electric (as NBC was until recently). They were not charged with making a profit; news was viewed as a public service. Changes in those assumptions, along with changes in FCC’s rules about media ownership, has news reporting now seen as a commodity that must yield a profit in order to sustain itself. That leaves journalists subject to the demands and persuasions of the companies that pay them. Thus, “caveat emptor” — let the buyer beware — is key to being truly well-informed rather than just a well-read consumer.

When I was growing up, my parents subscribed to many newspapers and magazines. I can still remember trying to read the front page of the newspaper as a first grader, wanting to emulate my father’s ravenous appetite for news so I could talk about current events at the dinner table. When I asked them why we had so many different periodicals, my parents explained that each had its own point of view, so by reading them all, you had the best chance of figuring out the truth.

The same went for television news, although my parents were always disgusted at the anchor giving his interpretation of what the president said after the televised speeches — it was nothing but hubris and disrespect for the public, they thought. My parents were right — but the spin continues to this day.

So fake news is not new, and neither is the need for a skeptical public. So why am I compelled to write about this? Perhaps it is because so much fake news has been used over the past decades to garner support for the delegitimization of the re-established State of Israel. And, for the most part, the media have been silent about this fact. Many times, it is not necessarily what you read that is the issue, but what the editor decides to leave out that is the real story.

I became sensitized to this fact as an intern researcher at the Columbia Journalism Review. One day, I returned with a relatively obscure paragraph that said the director of Israel’s press office, Zev Chafets, charged that in the spring of 1981, American reporters in Beirut, including those from the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Washington Post, were abducted and held overnight by a PLO faction. They were released only upon condition that it never would be reported. This was all I had at the time, and although it was the kind of story I had been told to look for, the editor-in-chief felt it wasn’t worthy. Intimidation and abduction of reporters not worthy? Reject a story about their outlets agreeing not to report the abduction? What impact would that have on future coverage?

At the time, Beirut was home base for the PLO — it is where Arafat and his murderous cronies went after being thrown out of Jordan following Black September — and soon the mayhem and destruction began. It ultimately destroyed what had been considered one of the most beautiful and sophisticated places in the entire Middle East, where Christians and Muslims governed together, peacefully, by design. Syria soon would join in the destruction, and in the intimidation and murder of reporters.

More details would follow this brief paragraph I found. About nine months after the abduction, after realizing that the story never was going to be told, Chafets reached out to New York Times correspondent David Shipler. The story soon broke in the Paris Herald Tribune. The article included an allegation by Chafets that a report on ABC’s “20/20” that put Israel in a negative light, which included many manufactured ‘facts’, was “intellectually dishonest.” He also alleged that it was part of an effort to assuage the murderers of Sean Toolan, an ABC freelance reporter who was killed in July 1981 after helping Geraldo Rivera produce a story on the PLO and terrorism for ABC-TV. The PLO was displeased with the story.

The Shipler piece that would be put in the New York Times would not include the agreement not to report on the abduction, or that Times reporters were among the abducted reporters. As with most things, the facts — including names of other correspondents who had been threatened or killed by either the Syrians or the PLO for not toeing the line — revealed themselves over the years. Unfortunately, this continues with coverage of the PA to this day.

Sometimes the reader receives skewed coverage, but at times someone on the inside reveals the facts. One infamous instance of candor was CNN news director Eason Jordan’s mea culpa in the New York Times after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He described CNN’s cover-up of Iraqi atrocities for years — even atrocities done to toddlers whose parents the regime did not like — to protect their reporters. What he forgot to add was CNN’s desire to assure access to the regime — but for what? To be a willing participant in Saddam’s propaganda machine? As for the PA, CNN still doesn’t disclose that a PA representative must be with anyone reporting from a PA controlled area or from Gaza. That is true for most news outlets.

We are fooling ourselves if we believe that reports from those areas are completely factual.

Is there a remedy? We must demand that media outlets disclose any restriction or intimidation with every report they make, but we must assume that such disclosure will be rare if the failure to disclose does not have any consequences. Talking with our friends and co-workers about current events — especially with those who get their information from different sources — will help put the true story together. And never forget, no media outlet has a consistent hold on the truth. It doesn’t happen only with stories about Israel.

About the Author
Martha Cohen is an award winning producer and creative executive. She is a Berrie Fellow and currently sits on the JFNNJ JCRC and StandWithUs East Coast Boards. She chaired the JFNNJ Partnership2Gether when the Young Leadership program was developed and executed; and, continues to be closely involved. Martha and her husband David live in Fort Lee with their son, Harry.
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