Donald Trump held his first press conference in months yesterday; I watched it, and thought it did not go well. (I acknowledge that others may have thought he did just fine). Trump’s stock-in-trade is, I think, a combination of belligerence, braggadocio, prevarication and ignorance; all were on full display. One exchange particularly got my attention. CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta stood to ask, well, essentially, if he would be allowed to ask a question, and the President-elect shouted him down, bellowing “No! Not you! Your organization is terrible!” Then, as Acosta persisted, Trump shouted “don’t be rude. You don’t get a question. You’re fake news.”
This was the election of ‘fake news,’ which is to say, the creation and dissemination of highly partisan clickbait nonsense on social media. There are guys, apparently, who do this for fun and profit; make up ludicrous stories, inventing a legit-sounding ‘news source’ for them, and clogging up your Facebook page. All human beings are susceptible to confirmation bias, which is why this stuff is so insidious. I’m a liberal. If I see some story that says that, say, Sarah Palin said something preposterous, I am likely to believe it, even if it isn’t true.
Each advance in human evolution must always first involve overcoming confirmation bias. To that end, I must begin by believing in the essential fairmindedness and objectivity of people I disagree with. It is my impression that conservatives are far more likely to believe in fake news stories than liberals are. That impression, that tendency, is simply confirmation bias at its most basic level. Hillary Clinton did not order the murder of multiple political opponents. George W. Bush did not order bombs to be planted in the World Trade Center. Both are conspiracy theories, one favored by conservatives and one favored by liberals. Both are silly. Can we at least agree on that much?
I like facts. But all facts are not news. It is a fact that the sun rose this morning, but it’s not news, which is, by definition, about things that are remarkable. News is noteworthy and consequential. As I write this, snow is falling outside, with more expected. That’s news, because people have to drive in it.
So if we want to be thoughtful consumers of news, it seems to me that we should insist that the stories the media present to us be truthful, remarkable and consequential. Ideally, the divorce of Mr. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t make the cut. Their business; not ours.
CNN’s misdeed, in the opinion of the President-Elect, was to run a story about alleged connections between Mr. Trump and Russia. According to a dossier prepared by a British intelligence operative, Russia may be in a position to blackmail Mr. Trump. According to this source, not only did Russian hackers deliberately work to defeat Hillary Clinton, they coordinated their efforts with the Trump campaign. Not only that, they had evidence of kinky sexual practices Mr. Trump engaged in in a Moscow hotel. Not only that, but Russia may have evidence of Trumpian financial shenanigans.
So here we have a thinly sourced, unconfirmed story that could be highly damaging to Mr. Trump. And the information in that story has been known by American intelligence sources for months. We also don’t know if any of it is true. That’s not fake news. The fact of these allegations is the part that’s true; this British spy, Christopher Steele, does exist, and has written them down. What we don’t know is if the allegations themselves are factually based. It’s certainly consequential; Trump may have committed high treason. And yes, the story exploded yesterday; it’s absolutely remarkable. So Buzzfeed published a two page summation of this British guy’s accusations, and CNN ran a story on it. Did they show good news judgment? Is this real news?
Of course, comedians had a field day with the sexual allegations; the details in Buzzfeed’s story are just specific enough, and just salacious and disgusting enough to make for some dirty-minded comedy. Stephen Colbert had a lot of fun with it; so did Trevor Noah, so did Samantha Bee. My daughter and I watched ’em all, going ‘ewwwww!’ all the while. I don’t blame Trump for being angry.
It’s inevitable that the kinky stuff would, initially, dominate the news cycle. But that won’t last, and doesn’t really need much investigation. The real story has to do with possible collusion between Putin and Trump. So what we have is an important news story, and also one that may be false. We don’t know. The story may be untrue, which both Buzzfeed and CNN acknowledged. But if it’s true (and it will certainly be investigated), Donald Trump is a traitor.
What it isn’t, is fake news. It doesn’t seem to be something someone made up. This British spy is real. His name is Christopher Steele; he spent years working for MI6. He now runs a private research firm, Orbis Business Intelligence. He’s a Russian expert, specializing in the intricacies of the Kremlin’s business dealings. He prepared a dossier, and it’s been circulating for months. And now, Mr. Steele has gone to ground; is in hiding. Doesn’t this all seem like the plot of a new John LeCarre novel? But John LeCarre’s novels are, after all, pretty much all fiction.
This is not fake news, in other words. It’s a genuine news story, but one in its earliest stages. It might be false, in which case that falseness will become the story. It behooves us all not to come to any conclusions about it yet. We don’t have enough information to conclude anything.
Does it seem plausible, though? How we answer that question probably depends on where we stand politically and ideologically. If we voted for Trump, we probably think it’s all partisan nonsense. If we opposed Trump, we probably think there’s something to it. Because that’s how confirmation bias works.