Real News about Fake News

Posted by Michael Getler on

First, a couple of warnings. This posting stands normal journalistic structure on its head in the sense that the lead, or reason for writing this, is near the bottom.

Second, no viewers contacted me about the issue I’m writing about. But I thought it was important, so this is just me talking.

And finally, this is old news by now. But last Sunday afternoon, Dec. 4, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a pistol, drove to a popular neighborhood pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., to “self-investigate” and “help rescue,” as police said he told them, child sex slaves who he believed were possibly being held there.

The man, identified as Edgar Welsh, fired at least one, and possibly three, shots inside the Comet Ping Pong restaurant but, fortunately, no one was hurt. He told police he had come to investigate for himself a pre-election conspiracy theory spread on the internet that tied Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager to a child sex ring allegedly being run out of Comet’s back rooms.

Business and Craziness as Usual

Sadly, we have increasingly become used to deranged or disturbed people bringing guns into peaceful places of commerce, worship, education or entertainment and firing them and, usually, killing lots of innocent people.

We have, also sadly, become used to—especially during the past year of campaigning and voting but also several years before that—hearing and reading about an epidemic of what is called “fake news.” Sometimes it is just intentionally misleading or planted stories that might make sense to conspiracy fanciers. But frequently it is malicious, false, dangerous, mean rumors and lies that are spread online and through social media like wildfire and have that same appeal to those who see conspiracies around every corner.

Given the anonymity of the internet, these are too often accompanied, as was the case with the D.C. restaurant, by online or telephone threats to the well-being of employees, store owners, their families—and newspaper and television reporters—or anyone else who takes a public stand against this craziness or to expose the truth.

So this story had all those elements. But it had some other aspects to it that made it extremely important, in my view, and took us beyond some one-day gun story into a microcosm of where we are and what we face.

The Plot Thickens

That is because soon after the shooting and arrest at Comet Ping Pong, Michael G. Flynn, the 33-year-old son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, 57, who President-elect Donald Trump has chosen to be his White House national security adviser, sought to keep the story alive and tweeted: Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many "coincidences" tied to it.

The younger Flynn has been serving as his father’s chief of staff both in an intelligence firm started after the general’s retirement and also during the campaign. The general, while not tweeting about the alleged goings-on at Comet Ping Pong, did lead the Republican National Convention in July in chanting “Lock her up. Yes, that’s right. Lock her up” about Clinton and did send out a tweet six days before the election, as the New York Times among others reported, linking to a fake news story that claimed the police and prosecutors in New York had found evidence linking Clinton and much of her senior campaign staff to pedophilia, money laundering, perjury and other felonies.

Here’s the tweet from the general: U decide - NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc...MUST READ!

In the aftermath of the Comet episode, The Washington Post did a good job sorting out the origins of these claims and Politico did a lengthy piece on the general’s relationship to social media and conspiracy theories.

On Dec. 6, President-elect Trump stepped in and removed the younger Flynn from any transition role. The Times story that day reported: “The uproar over Mr. Flynn’s Twitter post cast a harsh spotlight on the views that he and his father, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, aired on social media throughout the presidential campaign. Both men have shared fake news stories alleging that Mrs. Clinton committed felonies, and have posted their own Twitter messages that at times have crossed into Islamophobia. But their social media musings apparently attracted little attention from Mr. Trump or his transition team before a North Carolina man fired a rifle on Sunday inside Comet Ping Pong, which was the subject of false stories tying it and the Clinton campaign to a child sex trafficking ring.”

So this episode, which, not surprisingly, is unofficially called “Pizzagate,” has lots of important moving parts. It has received nationwide coverage on NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN, among others, and all the major newspapers and online news sites.

Big News but Not on the NewsHour

Alas, it has received no television coverage by the PBS NewsHour, which is the reason for this posting.

The NewsHour did post a lengthy staff written story on its website on Dec. 5, which referred in its first two paragraphs to the Comet Ping Pong episode but was really about fake news for the rest of its length. On Dec. 6, they showed a picture of that online-only story’s headline and accompanying picture of the restaurant at the end of the program’s news wrap-up, but with no reporting or dialogue. And there was also a brief Associated Press story on the website Dec. 6 when Vice President-elect Mike Pence said that Gen. Flynn’s son “has no involvement in the transition whatsoever.”

The NewsHour Responds

I asked NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just why there was no coverage on the air for the million-plus NewsHour viewers. Here is how she explained it:

“Every day, the NewsHour has to make choices with our limited broadcast airtime about which stories to report and explore more deeply. Invariably, some stories end up left out, others are covered online only. Sometimes when a story touches on broader, significant themes, we return to the topic when we are able to offer the audience additional insight.

“We will have a segment on the Comet pizza attack and the concerns about fake news issue on tonight’s [Dec. 9] broadcast. We will explain to the audience that the NewsHour is committed to covering the fake news problem and will be coming back to it in an ongoing way. Additionally, one of our digital reporters will be reporting through the day online from the community rally that is being held at Comet today.”

Final Thoughts

This is a good response both to my inquiry and to those who depend on the nightly NewsHour as their main source. The Trump administration is coming. The election campaign and the president-elect are like no others in living memory (and I was born during the first administration of FDR). This will be a real challenge for the press because Trump’s attitude toward the press and individual reporters who challenge him or report on things he doesn't want covered is oppositional in the extreme.

The reason that I described the Comet Ping Pong episode as a microcosm is because it contained much of the environment that we now live in with the added ingredient of a combative new president who breaks all fact-checking records. The components were the spread of fake news, the use of social media to spread false conspiracy theories, the potentially fatal actions by some who are moved by these posts, the threats to individuals who seek to fight back, the revelation about the role of offspring in the working of the transition, the positive role of the president-elect in removing Gen. Flynn’s son from the transition, and further insight into the thinking and actions of the already controversial, soon-to-be top national security adviser—a crucial and influential position—to a new president who has no national security or government experience.

Posted on Dec. 9, 2016 at 3:04 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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