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Editor’s Introduction


POLITICAL DISCOURSE Cindy Simon Rosenthal | Editor

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” #fakenews


ith exactly 140 characters, the above epigram could easily be imagined as a tweet from the current occupant of the White House or as a response to a Twitter posting of many members of Congress. However, the author of this quote – minus the hashtag – was none other than President Thomas Jefferson, writing by letter in 1807 to a young reporter and expressing his view of the longstanding tension between elected officials and the Fourth Estate.1 As a former newspaper reporter, I have always felt that the media play a special role in our democracy. To be sure, reporters are not doing their jobs if they do not question, challenge, and seek to hold public officials accountable. This year’s attacks on the legitimacy, accuracy, and honesty of news-gathers have been especially disturbing and troubling, however; and the epithet of “fake news” has crept into daily political discourse, undermining trust, encouraging conspiracy theorists, fueling partisan discord, and introducing threats to our democratic institutions. Coupled with the explosion of internet-based news aggregators, citizen bloggers 2

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and the crumbling of community journalism and local-news reporting, the media environment is especially vulnerable to unchecked information and the toxic paradox of too much information and not enough news. To an extent, as Thomas Jefferson’s complaint suggests, a free press and American politicians have always clashed. Patrick Meirick and Mary Layton Atkinson review some of these historic conflicts in their contributions to this issue. But, is there something particularly problematic about the current war between elected officials and the news media in the 21st century and the accusations of fake news? First, we might consider what constitutes fake news. On the one hand, outright propaganda aimed at deception and manipulation of the citizenry for political ends dates to the Greeks, who used their dramas to present political arguments and influence opinion. Shoddy journalism is also not new. Thankfully, the Columbia Journalism Review and other purveyors of professional journalistic standards call out these errors, mistakes and outright whoppers. On a daily basis, independent fact checkers comb through speeches, news stories,

press releases, campaign brochures, TV ads, Facebook postings, and transcripts of TV and radio interviews to verify or refute the claims made by news makers and reporters. Increasingly, however, many of the stories which get labeled as fake news are simply those which we (and the subjects of the stories) do not like or do not fit our ideological preferences. The term fake news serves as an umbrella covering a variety of different things, including bogus claims of questionable products intended to make your life more tolerable, healthy and convenient, all for the modest price of $49.99. Perhaps the most important elements to consider in today’s political climate are the intent and the purpose. There are those who would manufacture lies for partisan gain; there are those who believe the misinformation or lack the knowledge to reject it; and there are those who spread the untruths either intentionally or unintentionally.

A Fact-Challenged Environment More than a decade ago, Stephen Colbert rolled out his first segment of “The Word” and proclaimed the

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Congress in the Ear of Fake News