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Fake news is getting worse.
One of the last gasps of Sara Gideon’s campaign against Susan Collins was a radio ad. It inverted the standard “I’m the candidate and I approve this message” disclaimer by placing it at the beginning of the spot.
But then it cut into a fake news story, with an anchor actor talking to a correspondent character. It insinuated that Susan Collins was somehow involved in a bribery-esque scheme, with the serious sounding “correspondent” claiming the situation was likely to draw the attention of the “ethics committee.”
It even had the gall to end with a commercial “throw,” something like “now a word from our sponsors” before the next ad rolled.
The late breaking “news story” cited a ProPublica article. Of course, ProPublica is a left leaning outlet that counts Rep. Chellie Pingree’s ex-husband — and major Maine Democratic benefactor — Donald Sussman amongst its board members.
The actual story written by ProPublica is all sizzle, no steak; there is absolutely zero concrete evidence Collins had done anything wrong. It reads more likely an “expose” on legislative sausagemaking. Yet it was published five days prior to the election, and her challenger heralded it within hours.
But whatever the journalistic merit of the article, Gideon’s fake “news report” spot was — in my opinion — far and away the worst, most misleading advertisement in an election cycle where no one acquitted themselves particularly well. The entire reason the “I approve this message” disclaimer exists is to force candidates to take responsibility for their message.
Gideon obfuscated. And, worse, she did so by paying actors to impersonate legitimate journalists. Which undermines the credibility of the free press.
Meanwhile, outside the United States, Pope Francis made headlines a few weeks ago for statements made about LGBT individuals. The headline read: “Pope Francis endorses same sex civil unions.” Commentators lauded the pronouncement.
Turns out it was fake news.
The statement was actually spliced together portions of an unreleased 2019 interview with the Pope. Supposedly there was significant nuance and context included in the Pope’s unedited statement, as you might expect from a leader of a 2,000-year-old institution.
Again, “creative” editing of a worldwide religious leader’s comments leads to headlines and reporting. But, when it turns out the story was a distortion in the first instance, it destroys the credibility of the free press.
There are people out there who thrive on feeding us disinformation and hoping we gobble it up. Certainly Russia and China have a vested interest in turning America against itself as they seek to project power throughout the world. Fortunately, this year, it appears as if their efforts failed. The United States military took the fight to the enemy, disrupting their attempts.
Yet when we are fighting ourselves and dishonestly twisting the truth for short-term political advantage or to try to spin an endorsement of a particular policy position, we move down a very dangerous road.
When politicians are literally paying for “fake news” and advocates are “creatively” editing interview footage, it lends credibility to people who claim there is some conspiracy afoot. Some Jenny McCarthy-inspired “anti-vaxxers” argue some amorphous “they” are doing any number of nefarious things through immunization efforts. Pick another issue, there is probably something on the internet arguing that a cover-up exists.
“You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts” has never been more true, nor more in danger. It is too easy, in the modern media market, to simply find sources that confirm your existing beliefs. Combating this scourge is going to take everyone. Rebuilding confidence in the credibility of legitimate news, while aware of biases, is where it begins.
That is one of the positive aspects of Gideon’s loss. Hopefully Mainers saw through the smokescreen of her “fake news” advertisement. Hopefully, it will serve as a lesson to all future candidates that Mainers prefer candor and forthrightness in their campaigns, even if they are bare-knuckled and bloody.
And hopefully we will never see an advertisement like that again.
Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan and in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine. He was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.