A recent correspondent complained about CNN’s fake news, saying it wouldn’t bother him so much if they’d report all the facts instead of only those favoring CNN’s anti Trump bias. For him, all the facts include whatever might shine a positive light on Trump policies, and he’s an ardent Trump supporter.
It’s a decent point. Facts are important and must be as fully reported as possible. But first they must be verified. Merely stating something as a fact doesn’t make it so. Verifying an alleged fact is not always easy to do, but it’s what’s expected of responsible reporters. A single fact, or even a few, never paint the whole picture. It takes many, some of them conflicting, but getting all the facts isn’t possible. Getting enough is. Enough can present a reasonably accurate representation of what happened. What is enough? Facts are like atoms; the more you take one apart, the more parts you find, and there’s never an end to them. Taken together, facts are like molecules in a cup of water, including whatever else might be in it. Trying to count them all doesn’t make sense. Sooner or later enough has to be enough. The question is, what's enough to present as full and accurate a picture of reality as possible? It’s not easy, but that’s the reporter’s job within the constraints of a deadline to be met.
I’m reminded of a training exercise I was involved in many years ago. During a routine staff meeting of fourteen well trained observers, four men burst in, started a fight, and left as quickly as they entered. It took less than a minute. Everyone was asked to write down what happened. Fourteen well trained observers gave fourteen different accounts, each of them generally right and exactly wrong. Like I said, it’s not easy, but it’s the reporter’s job.
Another question remains: what do the facts mean? Facts, by themselves, have no meaning. It’s raining may be a fact, but what does it mean? Someone has to give it meaning. My high school text book explained the meaning of rain in the context of the water cycle. Rained out picnickers give it a different meaning, and a drought burdened farmer yet another, all from the same fact. What meaning is the right meaning?
Responsible reporters try to give meaning as best they can without editorializing. Editorializing is what I do. The difference is subtle, but looks a little like this: reporters try to gather enough facts to tell an accurate story of what happened, giving it their best shot at unbiased meaning in the form of: What does it mean for…?; What does it mean about…?. Editorial commentators focus on meaning from their point of view, and use available facts to give it weight. For instance, I write as a progressive Christian and center-left political observer.
Reporters try not to make moral judgments. Editorial commentators intend to make moral judgments. Responsible editorial commentators are careful to use available facts to make their point so that it will stand up to scrutiny by others, especially those who disagree.
Newspapers do both, but the news and editorial staffs are separate, and so are the pages on which they’re featured.
Cable news outlets also do both, but without much separation between reporting and editorializing. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference because they have another problem. They have to keep their audience and advertisers involved 24 hours, day after day. So the tendency is to rely on anything that can be called breaking news before it can be fully vetted; they sensationalize events more worthy of a dispassionate mention; the trivial is made to appear important; and they feature commentators eager to dig for instant meaning into that which requires patient study and time for reflection.
It’s one reason why I prefer print media, and broadcasters such as PBS, NPR, and BBC. But calling CNN fake news, the enemy of the people, is morally wrong, factually incorrect, and dangerous to our democracy. It needs to stop. Given the world of cable news, they report as well as anybody. Even Fox, on the reporting side, does a decent job of it. The editorial side is another matter. MSNBC is in a separate category. They make no pretense at being news reporters. They’re editorial commentators speaking from center left.
There is another world of propagandists and provocateurs who imitate authentic providers of news and editorials. They’re all over the internet, talk radio, and some television. I have no respect for them and regret that others, seduced by their calculated deviousness, give them legitimacy.