The latest battle cry being test marketed by enemies of free speech is “Fake News”. It is the perfect bumper sticker slogan because the phrase is entirely devoid of substantive meaning, and it is sure to get partisan blood boiling. Like all propaganda campaigns, this one starts off with an ostensibly reasonable premise, namely that “fake news” is a problem. After all, who could be in favor of simply making stuff up?
Now is the time to state the obvious: people make stuff up all the time, and have done so forever. Politicians and advertisers have strong incentives to do so, which may be why they are so adept at it. That isn’t the issue. The real issue revolves around how to protect freedom of speech while still protecting citizens against libel and defamation.
Libel is not, and has never been, constitutionally protected. To be sure there are different standards for pursuing a libel case. For example, an ordinary citizen has a lower threshold to meet for pursuing a libel suit than does a public figure. In the landmark 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that in order for a public official to successfully sue a news organization for libel, the official had to demonstrate that the news organization acted with malice, knowing that its reporting was false, or that it acted with malice with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of its reporting.
But the fake news sloganeers are not interested in that, or in providing a remedy for libel. They are enemies of free speech and mean to shut down the speech of people with whom they disagree. They have tried to do so with campaign finance laws. Thankfully they were stopped in their tracks by the Citizens United case in a 5- 4 vote. They have promised to overturn Citizens United, but they are unlikely to succeed. With that avenue apparently closed down, the next gambit will be some attempt to regulate speech, i.e.—news, on the basis of its “accuracy”. The point of the fake news campaign is to soften the beaches for the next assault on the first amendment which will probably take the form of “recommendations” and “guidelines” for what constitutes news, how it should be reported, and by whom.
It will be instructive to see who falls in line as the campaign continues. His Majesty Donald the 1st of 5th Avenue has already suggested he wants to loosen libel laws to make it easier for politicians to sue the press. Charles Schumer attempted to amend the 1st amendment to allow legislatures to regulate political speech around election times. And now we have hedge fund manager Ray Dalio weighing in, proving once again Lenin’s prescience when he said that capitalists would sell communists the rope they would use to hang them.
In complaining about how that noted anti-capitalist newspaper the Wall Street Journal covered him, Dalio reportedly said the following.
“The failure to rectify this [fake news] problem is due to there not being any systemic checks on the news media’s quality,” he said. “The news media is unique in being the only industry that operates without quality controls or checks on its power. It has so much unchecked power that even the most powerful people and companies are afraid to speak out against it for fear of recrimination. In fact, I presume that I will be widely attacked in the media for what I am saying here.”
The ignorance embedded in that remark is nothing short of astonishing. Here we have a major Wall Street player, naively complaining that there are not any “systemic checks on the news media’s quality.” So would Mr. Dalio prefer to have a bureaucratic mechanism installed to replace the market? Perhaps a Ministry of News to do quality checks, meaning accuracy checks? That should send a chill down the spine of any sensible person.
Dalio, who is apparently unaware that news organizations compete, appears to believe the news media is a monolith. That would come as a surprise to Fox News and CNN, or to The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. But, Dalio says, “The news media is unique in being the only industry that operates without quality controls or checks on its power”. Seriously? No quality controls? What does he think fact checkers and editors do? No checks on their power? How is it that these supremely powerful news organizations, particularly newspapers, are under such intense financial pressure? Why, if they are so powerful, are newspapers going out of business everywhere you look? And why, if they are so persuasive, is trust in news organizations at an all-time low? And how did Trump get elected when virtually all the major media outlets except Fox News opposed him?
Undaunted by the evidence colliding with his hypothesis, Dalio soldiers on. Those who disagree with him must be misinformed. He flat out says, misinformation prevents the public from comprehending the truth, “which will threaten our society’s well-being.” Here is where he gives the game away. Ray Dalio and Co. are the high priests Who Know the Truth. In the blink of an eye “Fake news” becomes “misinformation” which blocks Truth. And it’s information that “the public” can’t comprehend, unless the great and the good are there to explain it to them. The perfect expression of bureaucratic paternalism.
All pretty amusing when you consider that Bridgewater Associates, Dalio’s firm, predicted that markets would tank all around the world if Trump won. Which leads to the question: When is the Ministry of Truth going to visit Westport Connecticut to explain things to the folks at Bridgewater Associates?