The Outstater: ‘Fake’ News — Literally

February 28, 2017

IF YOU ARE AMONG THOSE struggling with a definition of “fake” news, we have an illustration (below). It is from page 4A of the Monday issue of the Gannett corporate national publication known locally as the Indianapolis Star.

You can see that the page has three items on it: a news article and two advertisements. One of the advertisements, with only a small-print disclaimer, is laid out to look like a news article, complete with a newsy headline, picture and caption. That is literally “fake” news if we use Webster’s second definition, i.e., “(of a person) claiming to be something that one is not.”

Let’s pause and think this through.

Why would a newspaper publisher allow her news columns to be so compromised? Because the newspaper needs money, of course, and the advertiser specified that format.

Why would the advertiser prefer a news format? Because the advertiser hopes to transfer the credibility of the news columns to the product, in this case a pill that purportedly cures joint pain in a “dramatic” way.

The other advertisement on the page, one promoting a local television station and its nightly news broadcast hopes to do somewhat the same thing. The station wants readers of the headlines in the newspaper to tune in at the designated time to watch its people read the headlines in the newspaper — pathetic but honest.

The third item on the page, the lone actual news story, “Promise Zone Helps Fund New Housing,” has veracity problems all its own. The reporter sets aside objectivity to become another promoter of another government economic-development program, the primary feature of which is selecting certain projects for favorable tax treatment. There are economists within a stone’s throw of the newsroom who would question such an approach had the reporter the time to exercise his curiosity.

So, we have a death spiral: The publisher, having recently been assigned by a distant headquarters and under pressure to increase revenue and circulation, allows readers to be deceived by advertisers trying to capture what little trust is left in news reports that recent cuts in staff (implemented to meet national corporate profit goals) have reduced to boosterish gibberish.

The problem, it would seem, is not so much fake news as no news.

— Craig Ladwig


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