As a result of the recent election, I have begun to question whether writing hoaxes for this newspaper is a good thing to be doing. “Fake news” sites on the internet, read by millions of people during the presidential election, told vicious lies as truth, and because the setting in which they were presented—news desks at “television stations,” videos on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, documentaries and other “legitimate” sources—caused many people to fall for what was being said.
It can be argued that Trump would have lost the election if these “news” stories had not presented “proof” that Hillary was a murderer, or that she had given classified information to our enemies not by accident but willingly, and had been linked to a child sex-trafficking operation at the Comet Ping Pong Pizza restaurant in downtown Washington. You will recall that a supposedly well-meaning North Carolina man drove up to that place with an AR-15 assault rifle and fired a few shots, without hurting anybody, in his effort to help rescue the children. (He failed—since there was no criminal activity whatsoever going on there.)
Thinking about this in relation to all the hoaxes I have run over 56 years I’ve edited this paper, I think there is a difference between what I do and what Trump’s people—and to a much lesser extent, Hillary’s—did in this last election.
Writing about the proposed motorman’s union strike in the Hamptons Subway (there is no Hamptons Subway) is a harmless hoax. The idea of a subway system might get a few people looking for the entrances, but others set them straight soon enough. With all the traffic in the Hamptons, that we SHOULD have a subway system is sort of the point.
In an upcoming issue you can read about the richest man in the Hamptons. Nobody’s heard of him. He is a wealthy Lebanese man named Limited Liability and his name is on the deeds (as LLC) of about 40% of all real estate in the Hamptons.
But this is a long way from crying fire in a crowded theater, where, in the panic, people are trampled to death. Creating believable, horrible, totally made-up news to dramatically alter the political landscape of the country is crying fire in a crowded theater. There is absolutely no doubt of it.
Truth is, since the founding of this country, politicians have lied to the general public to get elected. Even Thomas Jefferson lied over and over. His nemesis was Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of State, who was organizing a banking system modeled on the British template. His template worked then, and it works today. But Jefferson publicly declared that Hamilton and the Federalists were secretly working with the King of England to bring America back under the British heel. There was no truth to it. But people believed Jefferson. People elected him. And Hamilton, by all accounts, became suspicious and overly emotional.
Supposedly, we are a people who vote for the candidate who has the best plan for the future. And fact-checkers today ferret out the truth of what candidates say. Thirty percent of the time, Hillary Clinton lied. But Donald Trump lied 80% of the time. I say that when you are dealing with crying fire in a crowded theater, even one scream is too much.
Attempts to make “fake news” illegal are probably going nowhere. Indeed, I believe the Democrats are now gearing themselves up to present identical amounts of “fake news” in the next election cycle as the Trump people did in this one.
What’s needed, I think, is a national effort—as was done with cigarette smoking—to inform people how to spot telltale fake news in the media in order to be able to see it for what it is. Perhaps a disclaimer on fake news videos would have to be required. Perhaps a public service TV ad campaign would wake everyone up. CNN69 is not CNN.
When I started writing hoaxes, my point was to entertain, not create chaos. It’s still intended that way. It is also to suggest to readers that they remain skeptical about what they read in the papers or see on the internet.
Now the media is everywhere, all the time, even on your phone, and people have given up on valuing the truth. Doing this will destroy democracy.
America deserves better.