It went largely unnoticed last week, but one of the leaders in the alternative right movement owned up to spreading "fake news."
Alex Jones of Infowars apologized to James Alefantis, the owner of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. Alefantis' place gained national attention last autumn after Jones and countless other internet-based sources spread the story that Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders were involved in a child sex-slave ring operating inside the pizzeria. A 28-year-old North Carolina man, Edgar Maddison Welch, demonstrated the potential harm that could come from swallowing such ridiculous allegations so completely. In a self-styled rescue mission, Welch visited the restaurant in December armed with an AR-15 and fired a shot. No one was hurt, thankfully, and after his arrest, Welch acknowledged he had been had.
Jones, in a commentary on his show on Friday, asserted that he was "far from the genesis of this story," claiming he was just one of many trafficking the pedophilia rumors. Still, Jones admitted it was based on an "incorrect narrative."
Currently for those of us in the news industry no greater scourge exists than the prevalence of "fake news," or what is considered fake news. We don't mean sloppy or biased reporting, or news that simply conflicts with a news consumer's beliefs, or that happens to criticize a politician or issue that he or she supports — although some on the receiving end of unflattering but factual news reports are now characterizing those accounts as fake news.
We're talking about orchestrated efforts to report lies as truth — such as the story last year that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president, or that Ireland was accepting "Trump refugees" from America.
It's difficult to say how exactly this started. Gossip, rumors and innuendo have always shadowed the actual news, concocted and distributed by those who see profit, financial or otherwise, in peddling mistrust of the actual news media, or those who harbor an inability to accept the reality around them.
Whatever its roots or purposes, however, fake news is being contested on multiple fronts. For instance, the Poynter Institute, the journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida, offers programs to help people distinguish between real and fake news. Google and Facebook, which host some of the most prolific purveyors of fake news, and the Associated Press also seek to stem the tide.
In that vein, GateHouse Media, the parent company of the Sun Journal and the Havelock News, announced on Wednesday that it was part of a consortium of hundreds of news media outlets that, with the News Media Alliance, are sorting fact from fiction for their customers. The alliance has launched the "Support Real News" campaign to promote the work of journalists, editors, photographers and videographers who document the events of their communities and bring people the news that directly affects them.
In a promotional video, the group notes that the First Amendment guarantee to freedom of the press has been exploited by fake-news peddlers "with the intent to lead consumers to false and potentially harmful conclusions." (Consider Welch and Comet Ping Pong.) "The public needs the truth," the ad continues, "not misleading social media headlines and fake news." It notes that the public, the government and President Trump need to be reminded of this.
Admittedly, the need for the "Support Real News" campaign is largely self-inflicted. The trust in much of the news media, especially at the national level, has eroded because the public perceives an agenda that crosses a line from reporters delivering facts to engaging in advocacy or editorializing.
That said, however, we would remind our readers that just as the public can most affect government at the local level, the same can be said of the media. The staff of the Sun Journal and the Havelock News work diligently to tell the story of Craven County and surrounding areas, and that is, and will remain, our focus. Engaging in the hysteria and combative attitude that emanate from Washington, and soft-selling rumors as truth, is not.
In a statement, Bill Church, GateHouse Media's senior vice president for news, noted, "To do journalism with impact, we must be vigilant in pursuing the truth, being the public's watchdog, and setting a high bar of credibility." Regardless of what goes on elsewhere, that's what you, our readers, can expect of us here at the Sun Journal and Havelock News. That's our real news.