When Prime Minister Joseph Muscat used the label “fake news” to discount a story in Nationalist newspaper Nazzjon last month, local observers were somewhat impressed by his stealthy adoption of the buzzword. But after he used it again to turn down an interview with Malta Independent, it started to get worrying. Yesterday, US President-Elect Donald Trump used the same term to refuse questions from CNN at the first press conference he gave in six months. It seems the tactic has spread, and we need to talk about it.
First, let’s remind ourselves of the origin of “fake news”. For those who may have been cowering under a rock during the last few weeks of the US election campaign, fake news is a term to describe fictitious, mostly right-wing, clickbait propaganda stories that were actually being written from a small village in Macedonia to generate money from Google ads. The story was first exposed by BuzzFeed News in November and eventually became a huge talking point, with many blaming Trump’s victory on the fake news that was playing into his narrative. Mark Zuckerberg took the flack for not eliminating these stories from Facebook feeds and the company has now adopted measures to help people report “hoaxes” from their newsfeeds.
But the media’s anger about fake news has come back to haunt them. As Muscat and Trump have both demonstrated, the term is being used cynically by politicians to de-legitimize news organisations that, while imperfect, are far from being the same thing as fake news.
“As Muscat and Trump have both demonstrated, the term is being used cynically by politicians to de-legitimize news organisations that, while imperfect, are far from being the same thing as fake news.
Muscat used the term at least twice so far. First, it was in response to a frontpage story in Nazzjon. The story claimed Muscat wanted to replace his Chief of Staff Keith Schembri with Transport Malta head James Piscopo, who previously served as CEO of the Labour Party. While speculative and typical of the partisan political journalism this country has always seen, the government’s reaction seemed disproportionate considering it could have simply denied the story and explained Schembri’s situation.
Later, and even more worryingly, Muscat used the words “fake news” again in an SMS exchange with Malta Independent’s Director of Content Pierre Portelli to turn down an interview request. Here is the actual conversation.
It is not clear why Muscat expressed so much animosity towards Portelli. When questioned by David Thake in an interview, Portelli seemed to think Muscat’s use of the term “fake news” was related to an editorial the newspaper wrote in December about Muscat’s adoption of the buzzword itself. Another possibility is the newspaper’s editorial entitled The Xalata Hijack which raised questions about the Afriqiyah hijack and linked to video showing passengers of the flight looking like they were having a good old time on the hijacked plane. The video was deemed to be fake by MaltaToday, whose columnist Raphael Vassallo lashed out at the Independent for spreading it in a brilliant piece about the dangers of fake news.
But while Malta Independent – like all news organisations – is naturally imperfect and in many ways succumbing to new economic realities of online journalism, it cannot possibly be discounted as a source of fake news that should be deprived of the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister questions. And the rest of the local press better unite behind this principle unless they want to be next.
Consider what is happening in the US, where even Fox News has defended CNN after the international news network was dismissed by Trump.
Why did Trump dismiss CNN? Because CNN was the first news organisation to reveal that a dossier by an anonymous former British intelligence official was passed on to Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
The content of the dossier – #goldenshower – had been circulating among journalists and government officials for weeks and was finally published by BuzzFeed after CNN’s report. BuzzFeed has been harangued for publishing the dossier in full despite being unable to verify it. But again, this does not make BuzzFeed a source of fake news. This makes BuzzFeed an organisation that is openly erring on the side of transparency at the risk of discarding long-standing journalistic principles that tell you to err on the side of caution instead. As Mashable put it: “BuzzFeed’s publication of incendiary documents, heavily couched as unverified, was not “fake news.” It is real news about information that may not be true. There’s a difference—a big one. And if we want a free press to continue working for the public, we’d do well to understand it.”
“In America, the press is supposed to be a check on the President, not the other way around.”
Either way, this does not give the President of the United States the right to dismiss CNN journalists asking legitimate questions.
Trevor Noah put it most eloquently after the fourth minute of this brilliant video*, where he said: “In America, the press is supposed to be a check on the President, not the other way around.”
Let’s hope we all agree that the same principle should be applied in Malta.
*The video is geo-blocked in Malta but you might be able to view it here.