There’s fake news, and then there’s fake news. For partisans, that politically-charged term is evolving at breakneck pace. What was once universally understood to mean sloppy propaganda targeting the ill-informed in social media’s cloistered information ghettos is now a blanket term describing flawed (or, not infrequently, inconvenient) journalism. The original meaning of the word does, however, occasionally reassert itself.
On Thursday, Fox News released its latest survey, and it was chock-full of its usual valuable insights into public opinion. But one question stood out not because it shed light on American attitudes but because its obvious purpose was to shape them.
“Who do you think poses a greater threat to the United States?” read the question. “White supremacists” or “news media.” Respondents were allowed to opt out of the question by replying either “same” or “don’t know,” but the vast majority opted to play the game.
If you must know, the results were incredibly disheartening. While 47 percent of the public went with violent white nationalists, a whopping 40 percent said they were more afraid of media’s potential to harm the country. This question was immediately preceded with an inquiry about who was more to blame for the “deadly violence” in Charlottesville earlier this month—a question that found 52 percent of respondents blaming “white supremacists” for the brutality and only 17 percent blaming “counter protesters.” The findings of these two questions demonstrate that a substantial number of Americans—most of them Republicans—are more suspicious of reporters than they are of violent racists. Advancing that perspective was likely the intent of the poll’s designers.
Some have tried to rationalize these findings. They’ve attempted to quantify the threat posed by a minuscule band of anti-social malcontents and compare it with the potential threat to American civic life and national comity represented by an agenda-driven press. Maybe you could convince yourself that the latter is a more urgent menace. But to engage in this kind of reductionism is to miss the point.
So what was the point of this question? To take the temperature of an ongoing debate within the United States? Obviously not, since no one is honestly gauging the threat posed by city desk editors relative to the white nationalists throwing Hitler salutes and chanting “Jews will not replace us” in front of ignominious statuary. To even imply they are counterparts be an outrageous libel. No, the point of this survey wasn’t to observe an ongoing debate but to start one. That’s a bastardization of the art of polling.
We are then compelled to ask what the likely results of this headline-grabbing survey will be, and the answers to that question are more dispiriting than the survey’s results.
Why put members of the press on the same moral plane as violent racists in the first place? Obviously, to retroactively justify an effort on the part of the White House and its acolytes aimed at discrediting an adversarial institution. This survey will surely validate those who have cashed in on attacking the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of “fake news.” That will not be this survey’s only destructive effect.
It would be a mistake to suggest that the pro-Trump right’s frustrations with the press are the result of a partisan delusion. The Washington Examiner’s Becket Adams kept a rather extensive log of media errors from January 20 to April 11. It is illustrative of a cultural problem when all of those errors cut in the same direction, and reflective of an impulse on the part of the press to assume the worst of Donald Trump and his administration. This impulse wasn’t just the result of bias and antipathy but genuine fear of the coming Trump era.
Regardless of whether that fear is misplaced, it was and remains real—particularly among center-left residents of the coasts, who make up the majority of the political press. That fear will only be compounded by the fact that reporters now believe approximately two-fifths of the American public see them as the equivalent of neo-Nazis. How would any human being react to that revelation? Even if they were to take it in stride, it will be internalized and might shape how they do their work.
This survey will harden the cultural divisions between mainstream news media and those who consume it and the populist press and its supporters, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of mutual mistrust and hostility. In fact, that had to be the desired effect of this survey. Why else ask the question no one else was asking? Which leaves us with one final question: cui bono?
If we define “fake news” not as an effort to inform but to agitate, then a lot of bad journalism can be lumped in with the foreign propaganda that originally gave rise to the term. So, too, can this poll question and those like it.