The Five Levels of Fake News
From the absurdly slanted to the actually trustworthy
Welcome back to Wherever We Are. This week, I’ll be reminding you how much you hate the media.
No matter who you are or where you stand politically, you probably have a bone to pick with the stuff you see published online. Sometimes you click on an article under the guise of “understanding the other side,” knowing full well that it will enrage you. About halfway through reading, you hear a devil on your shoulder urging you to chest-pass your laptop across the room, and you’re so ticked off that you genuinely think about it for a second. Ignorance is one thing, but a journalist being paid to deliver relevant information to you and doing it dishonestly is quite another.
But let’s not fool ourselves: professional or not, we all have our biases and blind spots. Some are larger than others, certainly, but no individual has a monopoly on the truth of what’s happening in the world, not even that foreign policy hawk in the Senate or that sagacious AP Government teacher you had in high school. In a world where the media is more individualized than ever, we should not only define “Fake News” within the parameters of newspapers or television networks. We all have personal publications now — we just call them Facebook profiles.
No matter where it comes from, any misinformation or biased presentation of information counts in these rankings. You can trust your uncle’s status updates more than you trust the NBC Nightly News if you want, so why not include them both in this conversation? These levels of Fake News will encompass as many possible sources of information as possible, because any information, if inaccurate, can qualify as Fake News.
These levels may ruffle your feathers. I expect that some of the sources I call out here will bother you, especially when I mention partisanship. Spoiler alert: just like individual people, no party platform has a monopoly on the truth. To assume so is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst. If you think that Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians are right on every single issue, you ought to read up a little more. For the purposes of this piece, we will work with the assumption that a publication that never questions a certain political party is not being honest with itself or its readers.
I should also note that these are guidelines and won’t be a foolproof manual for news consumption. Like a set of proverbs, I’ve found them helpful in my own life, but they do not apply to every single situation equally.
Without further ado, then, let us progress up the trustworthiness ladder one rung at a time, starting at Level 1, the fakest of Fake News; and working our way up to Level 5, the most credible corners of the internet.
Level 1: Trolls
Examples: Online Comment Sections, That Guy on Your Facebook Feed Who Didn’t Even Flinch When He Heard that Russia May Have Tried to Rig the Election for Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos
This level doesn’t even belong on the scale, really. Everyone knows you can’t trust people who are hiding behind keyboard usernames with MAGA hats for profile pictures, and there are certain news stories that should freak everyone out, regardless of who you voted for. Even if you think there’s only a 0.1% chance that Russia tried to rig the election, for instance, the chance itself should give you a moment’s pause. Please don’t be a Level 1 person. I’m begging you.
Level 2: Partisans Pretending They’re Not Partisans
Examples: Fox News, The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, Fusion, That Woman on Your Facebook Feed Who Acts Like She Is Fair and Balanced When They Actually Vote Straight-Ticket in Every Election
Here’s a perfect example of two Level 2 sources on opposite sides — one source saying verbatim that they aren’t biased and the other (obviously biased) source mocking them for saying so. I imagine the kinds of conversations that happen here in The Young Turks studio occur in many Level 2 news offices around the country.
Don’t get me wrong: partisan groups are necessary to our conversations for the same reason I shouldn’t ride a seesaw with my six-year-old cousin. We need to have equal weights on the two extremes so that one side doesn’t topple the other. Even still, if you’re going to be partisan, at least be honest and thoughtful about it. The Level 2 reporting style may get high ratings, but it tends to mislead people and help construct those disastrous echo chambers we’ve heard so much about, often getting egg on the face of the publication itself.
Level 2 sources aren’t going to change any time soon — there’s too much money in their business. But let’s shift to the individual level. If you have never voted for a Democrat (or a Republican) in your life and you fancy yourself a political authority to people who read your political posts on social media, you should probably reevaluate just how thoughtful and nuanced you are. Don’t let your own biases trip up other people.
(Full disclosure: I voted for 7 Democrats, 4 Republicans, 1 Independent, and 1 Constitution Party candidate in 2016. On each ballot I chose who I thought would the best person for the job and it turned out to be a pretty ideologically diverse set of folks. I’m proud of that.)
Level 3: Partisans Who Admit That They’re Partisans
Examples: ThinkProgress, National Review, Heritage Foundation, Most U.S. Senators, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Most Late Night Show Hosts, That Driver of That Car on the Interstate With a Donkey Bumper Sticker
I have a soft spot in my heart for self-aware partisans. My grandfather, a former coal miner who worked hard in the mines for decades and then in an office job focusing on pro-Union coal policies, is one such example. Despite the fact that the Democratic Party has abandoned Coal Country and most Appalachian voters have turned West Virginia into a red state, he still votes straight-ticket Democrat every time he goes to the booth. He’ll always be faithful to his party, no matter what, and there’s an honor in that. He was a key reason I registered for the same party when I turned 18. I vote for Republicans every once in a while, but I will never register as one. I wouldn’t dishonor my Papaw that way.
That being said, whether you are listening to my Papaw, or Mitch McConnell, or Bill Maher, or even our last two presidents, you will notice that none of them would ever align themselves with someone who opposes the party of their choice. No matter how much he hated Trump, Marco Rubio would never have endorsed Clinton in 2016. And President Obama, who once said this:
…said this once she became the nominee of his party.
Now, does this make self-aware partisans completely dishonest? Of course not. In fact, when they criticize their own party (like Paul Ryan does with Donald Trump here, or late-night star Samantha Bee does with Obama here), you should pay close attention. But when they praise their own “team” or criticize those who are on the other “team,” take it with a grain of salt.
Actually, a grandparent is a good comparison: does it really matter that much to you if your grandma calls you handsome, or assures you that you’re so much better for your ex than the guy she’s with now? On the other hand, if your grandma says that your new beard looks patchy, you know she’s telling the truth. Treat Level 3 people (and Level 3 publications, like those proudly partisan ones I mentioned above) like you’d treat comments from your grandparents.
Level 4: Pols and Pundits Trying to Be Balanced
Examples: New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, FiveThirtyEight, NBC, ABC, CBS, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, John Kasich, John McCain, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, (Hopefully) Me
The closest thing I have to a man-crush in modern American politics is Republican John Kasich. 20 years ago, as a Congressman in charge of the United States’ annual budget, he and Speaker Newt Gingrich (who has sadly descended to Level 3 in the past few years) worked with Democratic President Bill Clinton to pass four consecutive balanced (or surplus) budgets from 1998 to 2001. These were the only positive budgets Americans have seen since the 60’s — every other year since 1970, our government has spent more than it received from taxpayers. For example, our federal budget in 2016 ran a deficit of $587 billion, more than the net worths of the world’s 13 richest people combined.
In the late 90’s, bipartisanship between Kasich and Clinton kept us in the black, and when they both left government in 2001, our spending got silly in a hurry. Today, as Governor of Ohio and 2020 presidential hopeful, Kasich says things like this in Republican echo chambers:
…and things like this on national television.
Most of the people I mentioned as examples in Level 4 have one thing in common: they don’t feel beholden to their parties. Bush and Clinton aren’t holding political office anymore (time will tell if Obama eventually joins them on Level 4), McCain is so old and tenured that he knows the Republicans won’t come after him, and Heitkamp and Manchin are Democrats serving in deep-red states where they often can’t afford to follow their party’s platform. These folks try their very best to be fair and honest, despite their political alliances, and their takes on events are generally respectable. On occasion, they will ignore conscience and toe a party line (like Kasich does here, alongside some famous members of Level 3), so you should not take their words as gospel. However, more often than anyone else in our political moment, they present fairly unbiased opinions.
Some of the country’s most respected (and most falsely maligned) publications also fall into Level 4 with their news reporting and their employment of political pundits. Television networks like CNN, NBC, and CBS opt for Bipartisanship by Committee, employing opinionated conservatives and liberals and getting them to converse with one another. Sometimes the talk gets heated and the commentators take impassioned sides, often sounding like they are members Level 2 or Level 3. Watch below as CNN both creates and rises above a partisan battle:
Neither Van Jones nor Jeffrey Lord looks great here, but CNN gets to appear bipartisan by giving both of them a voice. Ultimately, while this kind of dialogue is fairly unhelpful, each man is accurately depicting a genuine side in the Trump/anti-Trump debate. It’s Real News because it’s a real conversation. Jones and Lord are representatives of the American people — while we may feel uncomfortable with their conversation, they are us. Although CNN draws ire for airing what seems like sensationalism, they are only presenting accurate information to a sensationalist country. Freedom of the press is for the people, and the people eat up videos like this.
America’s top-flight newspapers play the same sort of game in print. The thriving New York Times employs Nicholas Kristof and Ross Douthat, two writers who have little in common except their way with words. Kristof and Douthat both irritate me at times — I found this Kristof interview, in which he tries to teach world-famous Bible scholar Tim Keller about the Bible, especially insufferable — but I still read them. When a news-reporting service has balanced voices in their office rooms, stories are more likely to be balanced out as each voice weighs in. Factoring in the inevitable Left-leaning bias most of these publications will have because they are based in liberal cities, we cannot declare them completely without bias, but they are as close to Level 5 as we will get.
In a perfect world, we would have more moderates in the news, but moderates are an increasingly endangered species. Instead, it’s former Bush 43 speechwriters and Black Lives Matter advocates doing the writing— which isn’t to say that either of those positions is bad, but they are certainly not moderate. Thanks to Bipartisanship by Committee, however, they balance one another out. Read liberal and conservative voices evenly from these sources and you will, in all likelihood, avoid Fake News.
I say “in all likelihood” because that’s the most confident thing I can say in good conscience. We will never totally mitigate the risk of Fake News unless we find a Level 5 source, and, well…
Level 5: Consistently Trustworthy and Unbiased
Examples: Jesus, Maybe George Washington, Maybe Walter Cronkite, Definitely Not Richard Nixon
All these people died before I learned to read.
Anyway, speaking of Nixon, the official President of Fake News, I’ll close by giving you a quick reality check that you may not hear from your preferred news sources. President Trump’s current approval rating (45%) is almost twice what Nixon’s was (24%) when Democrats and Republicans came together to force him out. In other words, Trump will probably need about double the blowback he gets now before he even considers resignation, or the GOP-controlled Congress considers impeachment.
Some of you would be furious if Trump didn’t finish this term. Some of you would be furious if he did. In either case, I hope that you would be willing to invest more of your reading-time into Level 4 sources. Maybe we’ll be able to get along a little better if we’re all paying attention to the same decent news.