The Fake News Story No One’s Talking About
Donald Trump is right, yet nobody is talking about it. Not even Donald Trump.
And that is baffling.
For all the Salem-esque hunting of media witches by the president and his angry mob, there is a “fake news” scandal just waiting for someone to take a match to it: A mainstream reporter accused of fabricating sources in news articles, along with nearly the entire plot of a recently published nonfiction book. Three major news organizations in the process of reviewing hundreds of the same reporter’s stories. The New York Times issuing an editor’s note admitting it could not confirm the existence of two sources the reporter used in a story it published in December.
Haven’t heard about it? Don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. Try finding a mention of it on right-wing outposts such as Breitbart or the Daily Caller. Do the same on left-leaners like CNN or the Huffington Post. You’ll come up empty. And that would appear puzzling, until you realize it’s actually quite troubling.
But before I sound the alarm, let’s back up and start with some facts:
• On February 10th, the Baltimore Sun reported that city and federal officials were questioning the veracity of veteran crime reporter Kevin Deutsch’s recent book Pill City. The tome details how two teens, using an Uber-like app, parlayed a string of 2015 pharmacy thefts into a nationwide syndicate that included such notorious cartels as the Black Guerilla Family and El Chapo’s Sinaloa. Officials claim many of the characters and events in the book never existed.
• From those allegations in the Sun came a small torrent of questions and accusations surrounding some of Deutsch’s other work, including the Times‘s concession that it could not “locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a December 29th, 2016 article on fentanyl-related deaths in the New York City area. The non-profit media watchdog, iMediaEthics.org, then uncovered six other questionable sources in articles for Newsday, Newsweek and the New York Daily News, all of which are now conducting internal reviews of Deutsch’s stories through the years. (Full disclosure: I was editor-in-chief at the New York Daily News from October 2015 through October 2016. Deutsch did one freelance story for the News during that period, which is under review. We also were offered, and took a pass on, the fentanyl story to which the Times recently attached its editor’s note. Deutsch wrote close to 1,000 other stories for the News before I was in charge.)
• On February 24th, Trump, referencing various outlets’ reports about soon-to-be ousted National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, said, “Because they have no sources, they just make them up.” It’s a distractionary trope trotted out often by Trump and, in turn, reflexively regurgitated by his Pavlovian pack. But the bloodlust born from Trump’s bullshit is real, making calls from the far right for Deutsch’s head seemingly inevitable. They never came.
• For his part, last month Deutsch penned an unapologetic defense of his work. Pill City publisher St. Martin’s Press has remained steadfast in support of Deutsch’s reporting for the book. (At the time of publication, Deutsch declined to comment for this story. In August 2018, Deutsch got in touch with Rolling Stone to issue a statement: “Despite the false and baseless accusations made by a handful of competing journalists who targeted some of my work,” it reads, in part, “including the author of this very piece, none of the more than 1,500 news articles, briefs, features, or books I’ve published in my 16-year crime reporting career has ever been retracted, nor a single factual correction or clarification issued, as a result of these attacks.” )
Now that you are caught up, let’s get one last thing straight: I’m not here to convict or exonerate Deutsch. That’s a task for the news outlets reviewing his work. (Publications make mistakes, as Rolling Stone did in 2014’s retracted story about rape at the University of Virginia.) What I want to know is, first, where is the outrage – from both sides of the aisle – over what is clearly the most damning accusation of “fake news” to be levied against a current mainstream journalist, and second, what does it all mean for journalism and our society as a whole?
I have a theory, but you might not like it.
Look closely at the sources in question, who they are and who they purport to describe. Almost all of them are or describe minorities: Drug users drowning in desperation, street-smart drug dealers looking to capitalize on others’ misfortune, inner-city kids willing to do anything to hustle a buck. Soulless cop-hating gang members. Radicalized, homegrown Muslim terrorists cheering the fall of the Twin Towers. Deutsch’s sources, real or not, feed and confirm preconceived narratives that comfort much of our society about those who are different, and, in turn, scary to them. I don’t believe Deutsch did this on purpose, but the effect is still the same. That explains the silence of the fake news mob as it adopts the attitude of, “Maybe this reporter did make up the specifics, but his overall message is true. That is how those people behave.”
That apathy itself isn’t a problem, but what lies beneath is ugly and dangerous.
“It’s fucking racist,” says David Simon, creator of HBO’s legendary series The Wire and former Baltimore Sun journalist. “They think they already know any story that can be told about a 19-year-old black kid from Baltimore. They are inclined and ready to believe the worst.”
In talking with Simon – who, on Twitter, has been one of the few to publicly take issue with Deutsch over his alleged offenses – I had planned on suggesting the race theory, but he went to it immediately without prompting. “Nobody is going to fact check poor black people. That’s the bottom line,” Simon adds. “You can say anything you want about the black underclass, and no one will give a fuck.”
Trump voters complain about being labeled racists, but when you consider the phenomenon Simon describes, it’s impossible not to see it as the same mindset, allowing Trump to maintain support from his followers despite getting caught in lie after lie.
“People believe what they want to believe. Beliefs are more important than facts,” says Dr. Charles Ford, author of Lies, Lies, Lies! The Psychology of Deceit, when asked about why some people cry “fake news” at seemingly credible reports while remaining silent when confronted by what appears to be an actual fabrication. “Everything you say that reinforces the belief is taken as truth. Anything that challenges the belief is viewed as a lie.”
None of that is truly shocking, but the intensification and manifestation of this basic piece of human psychology should concern us all. “When you belong to a tribe, there’s an internally loyalty. You have to tell the truth to members of the tribe,” Ford adds. “But it’s deemed OK to lie to those outside. Morality and ethicalness depends on to whom you are telling the story. We are in a sense developing two super-tribes in this country. Why aren’t we more worked up about this? That is disturbing.”
Of course, there has been barely a peep from anyone on the left either. And yes, I have a theory about that, too.
Fox News has spent the past 20 years claiming the “left-wing media” lies. Trump has taken that parlor trick and amplified it to a level that had never existed beyond Roger Ailes’ wet dreams. No matter how baseless most of these attacks are, they’ve had the desired effect of making most of the mainstream media question itself. So when the Deutsch allegations surfaced – after years of similar accusations about journalists such as Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley, Juan Thompson, etc. – I think many in the industry felt a sense of dread and feared giving Trump legitimate grounds for what had previously been a bogus cause.
“It’s tough for us to not sound defensive,” says former New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman, whose daughter Maggie covers politics for the Times and is no stranger to Trump’s attacks. “We have to call out fake wherever we see it. I am disheartened by this notion that we are all a bunch of crooks. When a doctor performs like a butcher, all doctors aren’t labeled as butchers. Journalists don’t get it wrong out of malice, but out of fallibility.”
The Blair scandal shook the Times to its core and created a news cycle that reached massive and national proportion. As Haberman recalls, “Jay Leno in his monologue just had to say ‘Jayson Blair’ and he got a laugh.” So why hasn’t Deutsch risen to that level of cynical punchline?
Jonathan Schreiber, president of Glenn Beck’s Mercury Radio Arts, has spent the past year with the now-reformed Beck, trying to reimagine and repair how conservative and liberal philosophies are communicated across the proverbial aisles. His take on the apathy surrounding the Deutsch allegations is more depressing.
“If it’s gonna get clicks, people will cover it. That would even penetrate the biases,” Schreiber says. “I don’t know that people care about another author who lied. The public doesn’t believe every anonymous source anyway, especially if it doesn’t fit their own narrative.”
Schreiber concedes he is guilty of instinctively giving less credence to anonymous sources in stories from left-leaning sources than he does from more conservative outlets.
“We are all kind of numb and immune that this is happening in a lot of places. It’s sad,” he says. “The bigger issue with fake news is the lack of an accepted definition of fake news. There are at least five examples of what is called fake news, but they aren’t the same thing.”
Schreiber is right. That confusion is palpable – especially when you add in inevitable tribal biases touched on earlier.
“Journalists and non-journalists have been making up sources since the dawn of time,” Schreiber says. “Then there are the people who are picking data sources that are wrong, from their side, not on purpose. When you conflate all that together it’s a complete assault on the fourth estate.”
Simon, who has never been shy with his criticism of the industry he fled to become a full-time TV writer, raises a fair defense of journalism in a moment of unprecedented attack.
“There is an unearned contempt for the press that is certain and fixed. And it was always there, before the Internet made fake news possible. If we do our jobs right, people are supposed to hate us a little. We are there to report problems. We are always pissing somebody off.”
Here is where the common ground between left and right must exist if the grand experiment of America is to survive. Journalists doing their jobs right can’t be reflexively labeled “fake news” simply because they are “pissing somebody off.” And if Republicans and Democrats can’t agree that it’s a big story when a journalist of any political stripe is accused of fabricating sources or information, then the country is – excuse my French – completely fucked.
“We are past the point of no return. That doesn’t mean the republic is over, it just means that lots of crazy stuff is gonna happen,” says Schreiber. “We don’t know what that is. But you just can’t continue to feed the respective political bases and expect to come out the other side like nothing ever happened.”
Update: This story has been changed to accurately reflect the original reporting of iMediaEthics.org.
Update: This story has been changed to clarify that Deutsch was never formally accused by any major news organization of fabricating sources. It was also updated to include a comment from Deutsch.