Back in the day, they were called supermarket tabloids, those publications stuffed into flimsy wire racks in supermarket checkout lines so shoppers unloading milk, bread, and eggs from their carts could glance at headlines screaming about a Hollywood starlet carrying on a clandestine affair with an extra-terrestrial.
Most people were too preoccupied with keeping their children quiet to pay much attention, others simply smiled and shook their heads, and others plunked down a dollar to see for themselves what such a love affair looked like.
It was all made-up trash, of course, but it drew a sufficient audience willing to part with their money out of curiosity or in search of a harmless diversion from the often grimmer news in the mainstream media. For the buyers, it was a willing suspension of disbelief, fortunately temporary.
Today, the checkout confidentials have largely vanished, the wire racks that held them replaced by computer screens, ubiquitous mobile devices, and that amorphous transfer station for instant communication known as social media.
It’s been labeled “fake news” and, if reports are to be believed, spreading it has become a lucrative pastime for a bunch of people who sit around the kitchen table and, using a laptop, distribute their own version of the Hollywood starlet/extraterrestrial love affair, substituting public figures — predominantly political — for the purported lovers.
Like the tabloids, most of the material is made-up trash, but because it comes directly into living rooms or offices via a legitimate communication system, the willing suspension of disbelief that doomed the printed publications to garbage wrapping has been weakened.
In perhaps the most frightening response to date, an armed-to-the-teeth individual entered a pizza joint in Washington, D. C., to conduct what he called a “self-investigation” of Internet allegations that the shop was the center of a child sex ring operated by Hillary Clinton.
The mainstream media has gone into outraged overdrive, warning that the proliferation of “fake news” and the apparent willingness of its recipients to take it seriously threatens the very existence of the First Amendment.
Nonsense. It no more undermines press freedoms than the breathlessly reported boudoir romp between the Hollywood starlet and the visitor from outer space.
In fact, the purveyors of “fake news” argue that censoring them violates their First Amendment rights and that they should not be held accountable if some in their audience believe the drivel they disseminate.
As odious and despicable as trafficking in this dumpster debris is, the constitutionally protected right to do so is clear.
The country has always been awash in conspiracy theories at varying levels of believability.
President John F. Kennedy was murdered by the CIA, the FBI, the Cubans, the Russians, or Vice President Lyndon Johnson, depending on which alleged reliable source one chooses to give credence to.
President Barack Obama was born in Kenya; the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, was a plot hatched by the American government as a pretext to go to war with Iraq; the lunar landings were actually carried out by professional actors on a soundstage in Hollywood; and the massacre of school children in Sandy Hook, CT, was a sham perpetrated by gun-control zealots as the first step in a government plot to confiscate privately owned firearms.
There continue to be those who believe with all their might in any or all of the above theories. Irrefutable proof or evidence to the contrary falls on their deaf ears. They are convinced of the validity of the conspiracies and they refuse to be swayed.
The mainstream media has a responsibility to debunk such claims and has been largely successful in doing so using their own investigative resources, as well as those in government and academia to discredit the theories and those who traffic in them.
It undermines its own credibility, however, when some journalists and commentators blame President-elect Donald Trump for somehow legitimizing “fake news” by his hyperbole and his often casual interaction with facts.
Trump has driven Twitter news to unprecedented heights, dragging the media along with him as he opines in 140 characters or less on everything from Rosie O’Donnell’s physique to currency manipulation by the Chinese government.
He cares not whether his followers accept his claims or reject them; it’s their choice to make. Suggesting, however, that he bears some level of responsibility for the proliferation of “fake news” or for the actions of those who respond to it is an overreach.
An unstable or delusional individual like the gun-toting investigator at the Washington, D.C., pizza shop — as frightening as it is — was driven to act irrationally on the basis of a bizarre and clearly phony account of criminal activity. Why he chose to believe it and whether he would have behaved in a similarly grotesque fashion when confronted by different circumstances is a question for mental health professionals to ponder.
The overwhelming number of people targeted by purveyors of “fake news” or who voluntarily click their mouse to access it recognize it for what it is — Hollywood starlet and the extra-terrestrial.
By its overreaction and dark predictions of the impending death of the First Amendment, the media badly underestimates the innate intelligence and common sense ability of the American people to sort through the deluge of information that washes up on their laptop or desktop each day.
At some point, “fake news” will run its course, steadily lose its audience and go the way of the supermarket tabloid.
In the meantime, everyone should step back, take a deep breath, and renew their trust and confidence in their own capacity to deal intelligently with the world around them.
Donald Trump will become president on January 20, 2017, government will function, crises will be dealt with, and the Hollywood starlet and extraterrestrial may be the basis for a new sitcom. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.