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The Big Answer


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Fake News in Real Context

a book by Paul Levinson

(our site's book review)

Paul Levinson Explores Fake News as a Cultural Phenomenon

Paul Levinson (born March 25, 1947) is an American writer and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York City. His novels, short fiction, and non-fiction works have been translated into sixteen languages. Levinson has been interviewed more than 500 times on local, national and international television and radio as a commentator on media, popular culture, and science fiction.

This 43-page essay explores the historical and current context of fake news—with comparisons to government propaganda, and professional and citizen journalism—as well as what impact it may have had on the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and what can best be done about it.

Paul Levinson's Fake News in Real Context is a concise, informative, and timely exploration of the recent emergence of Fake News as a cultural phenomenon. Charting the distinctions between professional journalism, citizen journalism, and state propaganda, Levinson nealy places fake news in its current cultural context. Moreover, he warns of the dangers that fake news undoubtedly poses for a democratic, or even just a culturally literate, state.


Fake News Is Not a New Phenomenon

Thomas Jefferson: 'the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors'
Thomas Jefferson: 'the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors'

“I will add,” said Thomas Jefferson in 1807, “that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. . . . In 1835, The New York Sun ran a six-part series, 'Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made,' which detailed the supposed discovery of life on the Moon.” So the next time you want to accuse Trump of spewing whoppers, think of the whoppers that have been going on for centuries. Trump is merely an also-ran, far from the worst liar around! (Obama may hold that title.) (Source: The real history of fake news, David Uberti, )

In 1835, The New York Sun ran a six-part series, 'Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made,' which detailed the supposed discovery of life on the Moon. It's funny how the 1969-1972 Apollo Missions all missed this stuff. Perhaps the moon creatures were hiding.
In 1835, The New York Sun ran a six-part series, 'Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made,' which detailed the supposed discovery of life on the Moon. It's funny how the 1969-1972 Apollo Missions all missed this stuff. Perhaps the moon creatures were hiding.

Snake oil has an interesting history. It started as an age-old potion in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It had real snake oil in it and it was effective for inflamation and pain relief. When ethically challenged Americans heard about it, they bottled something they called snake oil but that had no snake oil in it. But the capsaicin that was in it is similar to modern day liniments that use that drug. Some claim such things work—we found them to be useless. Your mileage may vary. A snake oil salesman was sued in 1917 for selling snake oil which contained no such thing when analyzed. He was fined 20 bucks. So these peddlers ended up changing their branding to miracle cure-all hype and left out the snake oil claims. The reason snake oil has become synonymous with fraud isn't that the stuff didn't help some people but it was advertising ingredients it did not contain. The irony is that the Chinese snake oil was effective stuff as a liniment, so snake oil was the only non-fraudulent aspect of the liniments—when and if the snake oil was actually present. The capsaicin replacement worked for some people, so the peddlers' liniments were not functionally fraudulent for some, it's just that they had to be careful about labelling. Of course, there were plenty of peddlers in the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s whose liniment contained neither the snake oil nor the capsaicin that were totally fraudulent, having no beneficial effect whatever. These were loud-mouthed salesmen who used grifters and shills, put on traveling medicine shows, sold lots of bottled fakery to the gullible, then left town in a hurry before the suckers found out they'd been taken. Unfortunately, the main ingredients in many of their cure-alls was alcohol, opium and cocaine!

Snake oil salesman were seen as fraudsters preying on the gullible with the use of shills and grifters in the 1800s and 1900s; today's fake news website is akin to the snake oil salesman of old
Snake oil salesman were seen as fraudsters preying on the gullible with the use of shills and grifters in the 1800s and 1900s; today's fake news website is akin to the snake oil salesman of old

Snake oil salesman were seen as fraudsters preying on the gullible with the use of shills and grifters in the 1800s and 1900s. Today's fake news website is akin to the snake oil salesman of old. You might get addicted, there may be a bit of truth mixed with the lies, the purveyors are ethically questionable, and they're all out to make a quick buck.


Levinson's Probe of Fake News Is Too Shallow

While Levinson correctly identifies fake news as a deliberate attempt to pass falsities for realities, his prescription of what to do about remains somewhat predictable. He advocates for better fact checking, for a citizenry that is better educated about political rhetoric, and for a deeper understanding of the monetary interests behind journalism—all sensible solutions--but they don't quite penetrate to the heart of the matter as they essentially offer Enlightenment—rational—solutions to what is perhaps better seen as a postmodern—post-Enlightenment—cultural phenomenon.

Fake news is far from being a new phenomenon; this illustration is from 1894
Fake news is far from being a new phenomenon; this illustration is from 1894

We'd like to see a more probing analysis of how fake news is something more than just poor fact checking. At times he starts to develop this analysis--that fake news is an appeal to emotion and related to confirmation bias, but his solution does not sufficiently address how to combat these non-rational or even anti-rational dimensions of fake news. See The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote.

“I do think that advertisers have a moral obligation to ensure their ads do not appear on known fake news websites and I think they should be punished if they refuse to comply,” Paul Levinson, the author of Fake News in Real Context and professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York tells Verdict. “It is one thing trying to sell a product, but it is another thing to put money into the pockets of those [fake news websites] doing harmful things to society,” he says. “Some things are more important than making money,” says Professor Levinson. (Source: Fool’s gold: Remove the financial incentive of fake news, Elisabeth Perlman, Verdict)

We respect Trump's authoritah, but not his goals, manners, sexism or hatefulness
We respect Trump's authoritah, but not his goals, manners, sexism or hatefulness

Is the Media Pushback against White House Criticism Too Timid?

The forceful new media pushback against White House criticism was probably inevitable. . . . "We're at a turning point between their relationship," said Paul Levinson, the author of Fake News in Real Context and a professor of media studies at Fordham University. He said Trump's actions will require a "more forceful and more explicit" response on behalf of news organizations, which have a responsibility to hold government leaders accountable. In terms of attacking a member of the media, "these tweets today are really much worse than anything Trump's done—with the exception of Megyn Kelly," Levinson said, referring to Trump's comments in 2015 after a Republican presidential debate moderated by Kelly, now an NBC News anchor, in which he claimed she had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."

If Trump talks like trailer trash about a fine, accomplished, smart woman like Kelly, isn't it time we ALL call him on it? We do have moral standards, right?
If Trump talks like trailer trash about a fine, accomplished, smart woman like Kelly, isn't it time we ALL call him on it? We do have moral standards, right?

Donald Trump seems to solidify his base by talking like trailer trash about a fine, accomplished, smart woman like Kelly. It shames the nation and speaks badly of his base that they knowingly elected an insulting, woman-hating, sexist pig of a man. (The politically correct version of trailer trash is lower-class white, house-challenged, manners-challenged, economically-challenged people.) But at least he only insulted Kelly, as far as we know, while a candidate, not while president. But "crazy, psycho, and bleeding badly from a face-lift" as insults to "Morning Joe" hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were done while in the White House, and, as many other sources have noted, they seem to indicate mental illness, senility, or some other issue that needs addressing but that Trump chooses to ignore. We really wish he'd look into it. He may be often correct about mainstream media reporting lots of fake news, and it's true that some of the articles from the NY Times are calling him all kinds of things, but they seem to be sincerely believing the things they say, and they are not trying to start a school-yard name-calling battle.


Donald Trump Is Way Too Immature to Be President

Trump handles criticism like a toddler having a tantrum. He doesn't seem to be able to stop himself from acting on his childish impulses that result in school-yard name-calling battles.
Trump handles criticism like a toddler having a tantrum. He doesn't seem to be able to stop himself from acting on his childish impulses that result in school-yard name-calling battles.


Trump handles criticism like a toddler having a tantrum
Trump handles criticism like a toddler having a tantrum

But Trump obviously takes it that way so he calls anyone he wants anything he wants. He handles criticism like a toddler having a tantrum. He doesn't seem to be able to stop himself from acting on his childish impulses. We, the people of the United States, need his wonderful daughter Ivanka (we admit it—we'd prefer her to her father in the presidential role: she's smart and thoughtful, exactly what we need in that role) to once again remind the president to act presidential and preserve the dignity of the office. And we, the people of the United States, need the president to do his job as opposed to sitting around Tweeting insults. He should stick with the truth which is that the mainstream media spews a lot of fake news. Half the country—and not just his base—are on board with him regarding that claim!

Obviously, the Republicans will stick with their man until he steps over the line and they have to can him and stick Pence in his place, which would elicit no crocodile tears from any of them
Obviously, the Republicans will stick with their man until he steps over the line and they have to can him and stick Pence in his place, which would elicit no crocodile tears from any of them


We, the people of the United States, need the president to do his job as opposed to sitting around Tweeting insults like a bird-brain
We, the people of the United States, need the president to do his job as opposed to sitting around Tweeting insults like a bird-brain

"Earlier this year thirty-five psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers issued a warning about Donald Trump’s mental health. And on April 20, 2017, another thirty psychiatrists at a Yale University symposium warned of Donald Trump’s 'dangerous mental illness.'" In a different article HuffPost "called for him to submit to a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation by impartial investigators." Obviously, the Republicans will stick with their man until he steps over the line and they have to can him and stick Pence in his place, which would elicit no crocodile tears from any of them. How and when and even if this will happen is anybody's guess. (Source: A Message for the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations About Donald Trump’s Mental Health, Bernard Starr, Huffington Post)

In the ancient Greek legend, the beautiful boy Narcissus falls so completely in love with the reflection of himself in a pool that he plunges into the water and drowns
In the ancient Greek legend, the beautiful boy Narcissus falls so completely in love with the reflection of himself in a pool that he plunges into the water and drowns—and the term narcissistic come from this legend

In Trump’s own words from a 1981 People interview, the fundamental backdrop for his life narrative is this: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.” In other words, Trump is a heroic gladiator with the motto that "there are two types of gladiators—the quick and the dead. Trump is 70 years old and far from dead. Conclusion: he must have been quick. That makes sense in business, but how does one be a quick president? We hope: quick witted. We fear: quick tempered, which could lead to disaster.

A gladiator contest—a metaphor for Trump's life narrative
A gladiator contest—a metaphor for Trump's life narrative. But does his winning the gladiator contest translate to his making America great again? Or is the real win for him when the new tax plan reduces taxes on the rich and on corporations, which will of course make him a lot richer? After all, winning is all to Trump, and 'He who dies with the most toys wins'


Trump says he is trying to Make America Great Again, but his actions say he is trying to Make American Oligarchs Even Richer Again
Trump says he is trying to Make America Great Again, but his actions say he is trying to Make American Oligarchs Even Richer Again