Letter From the Opinion Editor: A column’s role in an era of fake news

Jess Schwalb, Opinion Editor

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Whether in anger or in jest, a popular characterization of articles shared on Facebook these days is “Fake news!” To be sure, the past year seems to have featured a rise of fantastical news stories from less-than-reputable sources. Not only does fake news flourish on the internet where regulation is difficult if non-existent, fake news stories outperformed reputable counterparts in the final months before the election. Readers are pretty terrible at discerning between the two. The line between news and opinion is also increasingly blurred, or ignored, in the conversation about fake news. But false or misleading information is hardly the same as an idea with which we are not so aligned. From readers of the New York Times to The Daily to Breitbart, resisting the temptation to dub the views of our ideological opposites’ as fake news is all the more vital in our time in which many college students consume media that confirms what we already believe, or which gives us only a slice of the full story.

Truth has become ideological. Disagreement, before based on the merits of an argument, now centers on the validity of one’s facts. While it may be more comfortable to dub political opponents as purveyors of fake news doing so does little to encourage productive dialogue.

The cry of fake news is too often used to either to undermine or ignore those with whom we disagree. President Donald Trump has repeatedly disregarded the importance of a free and active media –– from removing press credentials of news outlets who criticized him during the election to delegitimizing those who disagree with his policies as fake news. After criticism of Trump’s immigration policies by the editorial boards of the Washington Post and New York Times, these publications have also been labelled by President Trump as fake news. True, the blurring line between columns and articles means that opinion is often presented as fact. But for ideological difference to become a reason to discredit a publication represents a serious threat to both public debate and freedom of speech.

America has an illustrious history of suppressing speech we dislike, from the late-18th century Alien and Sedition Acts to Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War-time suspension of habeas corpus to ensure that vocal opponents of the Union remained in prison. There is ample precedent to restrict speech on the basis of political disagreement. Yet Trump’s enabling of the term fake news has reached dangerous levels. He recently tweeted “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Dissent, accountability, criticism and commentary, on both sides of the political spectrum, are no enemies of the American people –– they are the very tools that help our democracy thrive.

Fake news abounds these days; to counter it we must engage on the merits of arguments we disagree with, call out falsity and misinformation when we see it and remember that the Opinion section is on a separate page for a reason.

Jessica Schwalb is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at jessicaschwalb2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.