Sample from chapter 3 of Becoming a Critical Thinker

5.3 Fake news

In 1985 the syndicated columnist Richard Reeves claimed that "The people taking over television are blithely going about the business--the very profitable business--of screwing up America's heads so bad that by the time they're finished we won't know up from down, truth from fiction." Reeves feared that a new generation of television journalists, "trained in sales conferences and dressing rooms," would significantly affect our perception of reality with its penchant for "fiction news." Today it's not called "fiction news" but docudrama or news re-enactment. Reeves was concerned that programs such as NBC's mini-series "Fatal Vision" would be just the beginning of presenting fictionalized accounts as if they were documentaries. Fatal Vision was about the murders of the wife and children of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was found guilty of the crimes. A poll done in MacDonald's hometown by Newsday found that before the film was shown 20 percent thought MacDonald was guilty; after the film was shown 50 percent thought he was guilty. Many people, said Reeves, "believe that the camera doesn't lie."

I think Reeves was ahead of his time. Re-enactments present fiction as if fact and they do so in a medium which uses images to give the illusion of reality. Re-creations of events can be misleading and deceptive, making the viewer think an alleged event actually occurred. The opportunity for abuse of journalistic power has rarely been as great. ABC's "World News Tonight" aired a dramatization of alleged spy Felix Bloch passing a briefcase to a Soviet agent. The scene looked like the real thing and it was not even labeled a simulation. It made an alleged event look like it was a recorded fact.

Presenting re-enactments of crimes, as in the programs "America's Most Wanted" and "Unsolved Mysteries," has become very popular. These programs worry some people other than wanted criminals. According to Edward Felsenthal, civil-liberties lawyers and media-ethics experts "have become increasingly uneasy" about such programs. "They argue that the shows present a one-sided version of how a crime took place, often pinning blame on suspects before they've even been indicted. And they worry that suspects won't get a fair trial if potential jurors form opinions on the basis of the television show, even though judges often disqualify jurors who have been exposed to pretrial publicity." Not only are the crimes presented from the point of view of the police, but concern for ratings may have the shows turning petty crimes into major ones and minor offenders into major criminals. More important, though, than the potential for distortion and prejudicing a criminal case, is the fact that such shows require an intimate rapport between the police and journalists. According to Felsenthal, law-enforcement officials praise programs which turn millions of viewers into "the largest posse in the history of police work." But at least one viewer, Tom Goldstein, is concerned. "One of the roles of the media is to be a watchdog on law enforcement," says Goldstein, dean of U.C. Berkeley school of journalism. "When the two become partners, it leads to mischief."

It should be added that, it is not just fiction news that concerns lawyers and media-ethics experts. The way the news media covers ongoing criminal investigations, preliminary hearings and trials in high profile cases can be just as one-sided and manipulative as faked news. Advertising executive Jim Morrissey said: "The facts are never enough....Imagery lives on." Unfortunately, sometimes the desire for vivid imagery compromises the presentation of the facts not only in advertising but in news reporting, leading some television news programs to serious violations of even the most lenient media-ethics. I'm referring to the practice of not just re-creating the news but of faking the news entirely.

Probably the most publicized example of fake news in recent times is the case of NBC's faking a crash test in a story about trucks made by General Motors. The story, labeled "Waiting to Explode?," first appeared on "Dateline" which was then cited as the source for the "news" story on NBC and other networks. In explicit video, NBC "proved" that GM trucks with gasoline tanks mounted outside the trucks' underframe are prone to explosion when hit from the side. In the NBC demonstration video, a GM truck burst into flames after being hit from the side. A man identified as Byron Bloch, safety consultant, went on the air and described the fire as a "holocaust." NBC reporter Michele Gillen claimed that the crash had punctured a hole in the gasoline tank. No mention was made of the fact that NBC had attached toy-rocket engines to the truck's fuel tank and then detonated the rockets by remote control at the moment of impact. Nevertheless, even when this fact became known, Michael Gartner, president of NBC at the time, said: "The segment that was broadcast on 'Dateline' NBC was fair and accurate." Harold Pearce, GM's executive vice-president and general counsel, didn't think so. He called the NBC program "outrageous misrepresentation and conscious deception."

The truth about the fake news came about due to the investigative journalism of Pete W. Pesterre, editor of Popular Hot Rodding magazine, and GM itself. For reasons unrelated to the faking of the story, Pesterre had criticized the "Dateline" show in an editorial. A reader called him and told him of a firefighter, fire chief Glen R. Bailey Jr., who was at the scene and thought the test was rigged. GM hired its own investigators who asked NBC to let them look at the trucks used in the tests. NBC refused. The investigators checked 22 junkyards before they found the trucks, but the fuel tanks were missing. Bruce Enz, who calls himself a "news gatherer," was president of the consulting firm hired by NBC to do the crash tests. He had given the tanks to a neighbor. GM got the tanks but Mr. Enz wouldn't answer any questions about the faked test, claiming he had First Amendment protection from interrogation. So, with little or no help from NBC, GM discovered that the fire that was described as a "holocaust" was a small, 15-second flame; that a non-standard gas cap was used and it blew off at impact, releasing gasoline that caught fire; and that X-rays showed no puncture in the gas tank. It cost General Motors nearly $2 million to investigate a piece of faked news. Who knows what it cost NBC to fake the story. But the visuals were captivating!

The question that must be asked is: Was this just a singular lapse of judgment of one TV news network or was it symptomatic of more widespread dishonesty, or at least incompetency, in the media? Needless to say, expert opinions are divided on this issue.

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