From all the recent hand-wringing about “fake news,” you would think that the hand-wringers had never stood in a supermarket checkout line, surrounded by 72-point headlines about alien abductions and miracle cures. Fake news has been around as long as real news, as any historian of early modern Europe can tell you (Renaissance readers gobbled up stories about women giving birth to rabbits, and men from Africa with faces in their chests). Social media has certainly transformed how fake news circulates, speeding up its circulation and extending its reach and impact. The temptation to blame many of our current ills on it—and by extension, on Mark Zuckerberg—is understandable. But the hand-wringing has in fact distracted attention from a much more important problem involving the American media. That problem is not fake news but the continuing delegitimization of real news by American conservatives. This delegitimization has been taking place for a long time (as The Nation’s Eric Alterman has meticulously reported, and as even some conservative media figures have admitted), but during the past year it has taken a frightening new turn. If the mainstream American news media are to have any hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic results—both for themselves and for American democracy—they need to change how they report on American politics, and on the ideological apparatchiks they continue to describe, misleadingly, as “journalists.”
Anyone masochistic enough to tune into Rush Limbaugh regularly will soon recognize a strange pattern in his rants. Limbaugh has an extremely long list of enemies, all of whom he paints as mortal threats to the American republic. But there is one absolutely constant enemy, whom he mentions in every single broadcast, without fail. It is not Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama. It is not the “Democrat party.” It is not even the federal government. It is the mainstream news media, whom he accuses of extreme liberal bias and hatred of America. In every single show, contempt oozing out of his voice, he flagellates mainstream media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, or the major broadcast networks. He collectively labels them “drive-bys,” comparing them to drive-by shooters. And his strategy has been followed by virtually the whole of the conservative media machine, from fellow radio hosts like Mark Levin and Michael Savage, to television personalities like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, to pundits like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. If some hapless liberal caller to a conservative radio show, or some hapless liberal guest on a Fox News program, dares to support an argument by invoking a story from The New York Times, he or she is likely to be met with contemptuous laughter. In this milieu, the Times has no more credibility than The National Enquirer at a scientific conference on extraterrestrial life. A conservative radio talk-show host, Charlie Sykes, who opposed Trump in the election, puts it this way: “We have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media…. At a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.”
It is important to recognize that if the conservative media machine has delegitimized real news for their audiences, it is not in the service, at least not primarily, of peddling so-called “fake news.” There is a real dividing line between figures like Limbaugh and Hannity on the one hand, and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who describes the Sandy Hook massacre as a hoax, and claims that Barack Obama is literally a demon (yes, literally). Generally, the Limbaughs and Hannitys will not even come out and state forthrightly that Obama is a Muslim, although they hint at it, and their audiences almost certainly take this idea for granted. They do not accuse Hillary Clinton of abducting children to serve as sex slaves. Again, what is now being labeled “fake news” is not the real story.