Tag Archives: hoax

The Conundrum

In a discussion the other day with a friend and former legal colleague, we recalled the mantra of the law firm with which we’d once practiced: there is only one legal question, and it’s “what do we do?” What course of action do we advise the client to pursue?

I think about that mantra a lot these days, and most frequently in connection with the media.

I’m convinced that so many of the problems that bedevil American society today are exacerbated by a media landscape that is wildly fragmented. Not only are numerous media outlets–credible and not-so-credible– nakedly partisan, but thanks to the internet, they are all immediately accessible to citizens looking for “news” that confirms their world-views.

Partisan news organizations are nothing new–if you don’t believe me, read up on the vicious contemporaneous attacks on “ungodly” Thomas Jefferson. What is new is the sheer number of media outlets and the ease of accessing them.

The problem isn’t confined to out-and-out propaganda mills. Dubious stories from slanted outlets can and do get picked up by credible news organizations, and its a truism that later “corrections” are seldom as widely read as the initial misinformation.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo recently reported on an example: the New York Post had run a “made-for-Fox News story” about veterans who, it reported, had been “booted out of hotels about an hour north of New York City to make way for migrants”.

As I said, it was a made-for-Fox News: Here are these disabled or impoverished American veterans getting kicked to the curb to make way for migrants with no permission to be in the country in the first place. Politicians jumped on the story. The Post ran it. It made the rounds of the wingnutosphere. Fox of course got on board.

But none of it was true. And I don’t just mean not true in the sense of being misleading or incomplete or embellished or sensationalized. It was a hoax. Sharon Toney-Finch, the founder and head of a small local nonprofit, the YIT Foundation, which focuses on veterans issue and premature births (?) was the source of the original story. But it turns out the she recruited a group of 15 homeless men from a local shelter to impersonate veterans and talk to the press about their tale of woe.

After a few of the homeless men admitted the truth to reporters, Toney-Finch confessed she’d made the whole thing up.

The hoax was apparently perpetrated with the aim of creating a media spectacle for  the right-wing press–to focus on the Biden administration’s terrible, awful, no-good  approach to immigration, and  the purported national immigration crisis. Even the Post has now been forced to recant and report on Toney-Finch’s hoax.

A local paper, The Mid-Hudson News, uncovered the truth with what Marshall notes was “a lot of shoe-leather reporting.”

This relatively minor story is a microcosm of our current dilemma. Today’s media environment is a Wild West of propaganda, spin, misinformation and outright lies. Along with the partisans peddling that propaganda and those lies are genuine reporters working for outlets that practice old-fashioned “shoe leather” journalism. And protecting them all are the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment.

So–what do we do?

What we clearly cannot and should not do is eliminate or constrict those First Amendment protections. The result of that would be to hand over to government the power to censor communications.

In some cases, like the recent Dominion lawsuit against Fox, libel law can be employed to punish the most egregious behaviors, but this is a very slim reed: few of those who’ve been libeled have the means to bring such suits, and they are–quite properly–very difficult to win.

Unfortunately, new rules that would make it easier to sue over misinformation would end up constraining real journalists as well as the sloppy or dishonest ones–when you are creating the “first draft of history,” it can be easy for even good reporters to make mistakes, not to mention that in the multiple gray areas of modern life, one person’s truth is another person’s lie.

The only answer I can come up with is better education and a change in the information culture–both long-term projects. Teaching critical thinking and media literacy in the schools–although highly unlikely in those fundamentalist religious schools to which our legislature sends our tax dollars–would help. Organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists that issue codes of ethics might consider “rating” outlets based upon their observance of those ethical standards.

But as long as individuals can search for and locate “facts” they find congenial, Americans will continue to inhabit alternate realities. I just don’t have an answer to “what do we do?”

The Real Hoax

As the threat of a pandemic increases, so does Trump’s idiocy.

Not only has he told his followers not to worry, because the virus is really just a “Democrat hoax,” he has defended his indefensible cuts to the CDC by reinforcing one of the most persistent actual hoaxes in American politics: the belief that anyone who has succeeded in business has the skills needed to succeed in government.

And yes, I realize that Trump didn’t succeed in business, unless being a pre-eminent con man is a measure of success.

But the fact that this particular Emperor is stark naked doesn’t negate the fact that the belief held by so many Americans– that the skills that enable someone to make a profit in the marketplace are transferable to public service– is unfounded, even pernicious. There certainly may be individuals who have both skill sets, but business and government serve very different functions and require very different approaches and abilities.

Which brings me to the most recent evidence that Donald Trump is–in Rex Tillerson’s memorable phrase– a moron. According to Business Insider,

President Donald Trump defended his huge budget cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a Wednesday press conference on the federal government’s response to the coronavirus.

He said it was easy to bolster the public-health agency and cited his business approach toward running the federal government.

“I’m a businessperson. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” Trump said. “When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

I’m not sure whether this displays greater ignorance of the way science works or the way government operates. It’s pretty embarrassing–and revealing– on both counts.

Evidently, Trump thinks that all medical professionals are on call and fungible–that government can just run an ad for doctors. “Wanted: physicians with broad expertise in pandemic contagions and public health protocols. Must be able to start work immediately. Must relocate to areas where CDC facilities are located.”

The president said some of the experts targeted by the cuts “hadn’t been used for many years” and that additional federal money and new medical staffers could be obtained swiftly since “we know all the good people.”

Um…hate to break it to you, Don, but so far your definition of “good people” has excluded anyone who actually knows anything about the position or agency to which they’ve been assigned. And if you know “all the good people,” why are there literally hundreds of high-level vacancies remaining unfilled three years into your disastrous Presidency?

And about those experts who “hadn’t been used”…see, Don, there’s this thing called scientific research. It’s time-consuming. It can take years to develop vaccines, to test medicines to ensure that they are effective and don’t have dangerous side-effects. It’s called the scientific method; it requires the application of knowledge, the careful testing of hypotheses, the willingness to recognize when you’ve taken a wrong turn…all behaviors with which you are unfamiliar.

You see, those experts weren’t “unused,” Don. They were developing expertise and identifying the interventions that we desperately need right now. Your administration has spent the last two years gutting critically important positions and programs–despite the fact that health experts warned that those cuts would dramatically weaken government’s ability to manage a health crisis.

And by the way, Mr. “Businessman”– maybe there are some non-technical enterprises in which you can “ramp up” employment when more workers are needed, but that is most definitely not the way scientific research or government operates.

Other experts elaborated on the cumbersome process to shore up a government agency that’s been battered by rounds of budget cuts.

Don Moynihan, a public management professor at Georgetown University, said in a tweet that “once you have gutted institutional capacity you cannot, in fact, quickly restore it.”

Appropriating federal money to the CDC would require a bill from Congress that passes both chambers and gets Trump’s signature, said Bobby Kogan, the chief mathematician for the Senate Budget Committee.

“In addition to requiring a new law to be passed to hire people, you have to actually, you know, spend the time to hire people,” Kogan said in a tweet.

Citizens who know anything at all about science or government or public policy have long since concluded that Trump is monumentally ignorant–a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect–but the adoring know-nothings who crowd his rallies probably believe him when he insists that there is no danger.

I wonder how many of them will cram those arenas and catch the “hoax.”