Harvey J Graff

Former president Donald Trump popularized the phrase “fake news” as one of his terms of universal condemnation for any reporting—or stated facts—with which he disagreed, regardless of their accuracy. It became one of his rhetorical trademarks to the delight of his followers and the disgust of the legitimate press and all others.

As it scrambles to fill their pages in the absence of Trump’s daily outrageous statements or behavior, the press fears that it lacks the kinds of attention-grabbing breaking news that attracts readers, and is repeated across the multiple outlets of the social media sphere. In repeated exaggerations and repetition of dishonest messages from right-wing provocateurs and media, the legitimate press recreates the phenomenon of “fake news” that they so loudly condemned.

Several dynamics intersect in this startling development. First is the decline financially and journalistically of the daily local and national newspapers. As more and more go out of business, reduce their staffs and reporting, become parts of large for-profit networks, and face intense pressure to survive, both reporters and reporting decline.

Second and related, in major national newspapers and networks, “opinion” replaces news and news reporters. It expands with a vague sense of representing a variety of ideologies and with insufficient attention to either logic or accuracy. This is seen immediately in the pages and promotions of the New York Times and the Washington Post, among many other examples.

Third, correct or not, the press thinks that Trump’s leaving office and his official and social media microphones creates a void in their pages that must be filled with headlines and column inches. Thus, the creation and expansion of the “new fake news.”

Contradictorily perhaps and ironically, Trump and Trumpism remain the pivot point for this development. Principally, it revolves around two grossly exaggerated and distorted issues: divisions within the Democratic party in Washington, DC including Congress and the White House, and the election of 2020. According to my approximate counting, there is more opinion writing about the alleged “division” than new reports. (This is also the case with respect to critical race theory/teaching about race.) Examples appear almost daily; they are far too many to cite. They are impossible to miss.

These writings’ constant emphasis, almost an obsession, is the repeated assertion that the Democrats are sharply divided—and its legislative power and majority--seriously threatened—by substantial gaps among “moderates,” “liberals,” and especially “progressives.” Exaggeration of “divisions” sometimes leads to parroting right-wing charges that progressives are “far left,” socialist, or even anti-Semitic.

Yet attention to public statements and votes on the floor makes it clear that day after day progressives compromise and vote with the party majority. Responsible reporting shows that unity dominates over “division.” Progressives and “more moderate liberals” work well together. Actual behavior contradicts the “fake news” recycled from left, center, and right opinion writers.

A second focus of “fake news” is the continuing attention to the conduct and results of the 2020 presidential election. Whereas there is no doubt about either, as recounts, state and local attention officials, numerous judges, and failed fake “audits” have all found, the so-called “fraudits,” especially in Arizona, but threatened elsewhere, receive pointless coverage. In my morning paper today (Aug. 15), an Associated Press story leads with “False vote machines claims obscure issues: Expert cities ‘multiple security flaws’ in Ga.’s touchscreen system.” The report itself contains nothing of substance.

The media’s penchant to manufacture “fake news” does a disservice to readers and citizen. Is it mainly an attempt to draw readers, sell papers and advertising? Or is the proliferation of “fake news” symptomatic of larger media failures. It contradicts the very purpose of a free press. Regardless, this (mal)practice plays into the hands of the right-wing media-sphere. That benefits no one.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history including The Literacy Mythand The Dallas Myth. His specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.