The beauty part of the term “fake news” is that it welcomes all comers. It is inclusive. Whatever your motive, you can spread it. The president wields it to criticize and provoke the press, as well as his legion of other antagonists. He does it to rev up his base, and because he is foolishly, tastelessly impulsive. The press and the president’s opponents wield it to criticise him, his behavior, his policies, his person, and doing so stumble into the tasteless gutter with him.
It’s become one of those terms with enormously wide currency, used every day by folks of all sorts of opinions. It’s a phrase, such as “unbelievably great” or “incredibly smart” or “iconic American” that may be applied to whatever one chooses, and that can mean to you whatever you want it to mean, and to others perhaps something else, or nothing at all. It is undefined and mostly meaningless.
And brilliantly, as if it were a mechanism invented by some diabolical linguist, everyone who uses these empty words and phrases comes to believe he or she has communicated a concrete, immutable idea that everyone else completely understands and with which they all agree. So, as time passes, with each use, meaning drains away. Such phrases and fake news are empty vessels that each of us fills in ways that suit us, believing that everyone else is filling the meaning void in the very same way.
Consider the labels, Democrat and Republican. Think of each of these terms as representing a variously wide spectrum of people and notions. Among Democrats, some are left wing, some right, some deeply invested in issues surrounding money in politics, others in gender equality, others in Bernie, others in Hillary, immigration, or race, others in something else, and these issues may dictate their voting choices.
Or Republicans. Along their spectrum, there are right wingers and centrists. Some want to hollow out the federal government, starve it of funds, attack the national debt head on. Others want to work out a deal with their Democrat colleagues to spend more on defense, attack climate change forecasters, destroy labor unions. Some think President Trump is a conservative, a Republican, a moderate, a liberal in borrowed conservative clothes, or a would be emperor.
Where there is agreement and common bipartisan enthusiasm, it is among the politicians who march under these various banners, always joining up. At both ends of the spectrum, they agree to wanting, no matter what, to be reelected.
Each of these party labels represents some sort of core commonality, I suppose, though it defies definition, which means it is nearly useless. Neither helps us much to understand what’s going on in the political world around us.
My wife is a guidance counselor. One of the problems she encounters in youngsters is that some of them are “on the spectrum.” Autism. High functioning at one end, not so high functioning toward the middle, severely challenged at the other end. She looks at me strangely at times, so I think maybe she sees me on that spectrum somewhere.
There is a fake news spectrum that runs from news articles and on-air or cable discussions that seem like news but are actually flimsy analysis, baseless predictions, or worthless, common opinion, usually driven by a hardened bias, sometimes declared, sometimes not. It continues through errors, mistakes, and attacks that people including politicians post on FB, Twitter, and other social media, and in comments to news sites. It is endlessly uninspired, repetitious, and unhelpful. And sadly, one must add the intentionally deceptive commentary or posts, made by everyday folk, crazed partisans, attacking politicians and foreigners, and ordinary people like you and like me who tweet or retweet for the atta-boy reward that we covet. Each of these fits the fake news rubric. None is original or insightful.
At a party, a frustrated someone said, “All I want is to have some TV channel that I can look at each morning, and that only broadcasts facts, the truth about everything.”
Which brings me to the First Amendment, the absolute bedrock, unique and unambiguous distinguishing feature of American government. It is ours alone.
The First Amendment is a reminder of our most precious rights as Americans, and as humans. And it reminds us of our unnumbered responsibilities. It bars the government – any government, local, state, national – from meddling with what each of us possesses merely because we are human, we have been born, and we are American citizens – namely, the right to speak our minds, write what we think, worship a god as we like or not at all, assemble peacefully and petition the government. These rights, we believe, were not given us by a king, queen, or even a democratically elected government. They preceded all of those. They inhere in us and are ours just as our eyes are blue, or brown, or black, or we are tall or short, fat or thin, American-born or naturalized. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights did not give us this supreme gift. Instead these three documents told the government “Hands Off, This is Ours.”
What the First Amendment does not say is that the use, the benefit, the protection, and the responsibility for enjoying and maintaining all of these rights fall to us. To you and to me.
You can’t palm the use and protection of your inherent rights to Facebook, or Google, or Instagram, or Twitter or the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, or Breitbart or Fox, or MSNBC, HuffPost, or even government itself – or to some imaginary TV channel that will fill you up with facts each morning with your coffee, granola, or eye opening belt of tequila.
Each of us is the designated curator of the information we find, gather, think about, evaluate, and decide upon. Hallelujah.