Does mainstream media report ‘fake news’?

Media

We all look to the mainstream media to be truthful and professional when reporting the news that we need to know.

Unfortunately, some of the world’s most reputable media organisations are guilty of the same sort of fakery they accuse some of their non-mainstream counterparts of.

There have been dozens of cases, including where they have photoshopped images, doctored the audio of their interviewees and aired entire documentaries based on completely unsubstantiated claims.

Dubious Photoshopping

In 2012, one of Austria’s most trusted newspapers, the Kronon Zeitung, used the Photoshop program to fake an image of a family fleeing the war-torn city of Aleppo. The motive for this was likely to arouse public anger towards the Assad regime. 

Deceptive editing of audio

In this BBC video from 2013, a medic being interviewed told the reporter that an influx of wounded Syrians appeared to have burns associated with “napalm, or something similar”. However, in this version, the word “napalm” has been replaced with “chemical weapon”. Like the previous example, it is likely a ploy to boost public support for regime change in Syria.

In another example, from March 27, 2012, NBC News broadcast an edited segment from a 911 call placed by George Zimmerman before he shot Trayvon Martin. The editing made it appear that Zimmerman volunteered that Martin was black, rather than merely responding to the dispatcher’s inquiry, which would support a view that the shooting was racially motivated. A media watchdog organization accused NBC News of engaging in “an all-out falsehood.”

Citing unsubstantiated documents as facts 

The Killian documents controversy involved six purported documents critical of US President, George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard in 1972–73. Four of these documents were presented as authentic in a 60 Minutes II broadcast aired by CBS on September 8, 2004, less than two months before the 2004 Presidential Election, but it was later found that CBS had failed to authenticate the documents. Subsequently, several typewriter and typography experts concluded the documents were forgeries.

Deliberate misquoting to serve an agenda

In 2005, rather than verifying the correct translation, mainstream news outlets grossly misquoted former Iranian President, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, as saying Iran would “wipe Israel off the map”. However, specialists such as Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project, pointed out that the original statement in Persian did not say that Israel should be wiped from the map, but instead that it would collapse.

Ahmadinejad’s statement, when translated from Farsi, reads:  “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. To this day, media outlets and politicians wrongly attribute the incorrect translation as evidence that Iran wishes to attack Israel with nuclear weapons.

‘Top-down’ deception

But what about instances where the mainstream media simply reports on false data or intelligence they’ve been given by governmental or scientific bodies? Can they still be blamed for spreading fake news?

This can be complicated, but the primary responsibility of journalists is to investigate the facts before reporting the story, and so they – and the media organisations they work for – should not escape blame when the story turns out to be completely false.

While truth is of course significant casualty of this malpractice, so too can be millions of innocent lives. 

Some examples of this include the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident (which led to US involvement in the Vietnam War), the Nayirah Testimony (which led to direct US involvement in the First Gulf War) and the faked intelligence on Iraq’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction, which led to US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In another example, from 2016, it was revealed that the Pentagon gave a British PR firm over half a billion dollars to run a top secret propaganda program during the Iraq war. The work included “creating short news segments made to look like Arabic news networks and fake insurgent videos”. Subsequently, these videos were circulated by the mainstream media.

The combined death toll from the above three wars currently stands at around 1.4 million, as a conservative figure.

The War on ‘Fake News’

These examples raise an important point. While certain blogs, online forums and small-time radio stations certainly also engage in the practice of fake news, they do not wield the immense influence that the mainstream networks do when it comes to shaping public perceptions on the big issues.

For the foreseeable future, governments and technology giants will continue to mobilise and shut down blogs and forums that they accuse of spreading such fake news. They are likely to succeed, narrowing the scope of news the public sees, considers and acts on. 

Let’s just hope that when the dust settles, the investigate journalists among us will continue to expose the mainstream news fakery when it happens at every turn – because as all of the above examples (and many more) show, they are often guilty of the same crime.  

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