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How a free press became fake

Just as the electorate rejected elites at the ballot box in November, so audiences are ditching the establishment news media. They’re tired of journalists accepting fluff for fact, lecturing instead of reporting, and getting the story plain wrong. (AP Photo/Raphael Satter)​

December 11, 2016

Ask Hillary Clinton about fake news and she’ll call it a danger, an epidemic and a threat to our communities. If the defeated Democrat was being honest, though, she’d also describe it as a political asset.

Clinton and her campaign team were peddling fake news before it was cool.

When WikiLeaks released the first 20,000 emails from John Podesta’s inbox, the Clinton campaign denounced the embarrassing digital correspondence as fabricated and falsified. Without double checking, journalists from the Atlantic to MSNBC ran with the narrative on air and on Twitter, and one shady website’s writeup of the false claim was shared on Facebook more than 40,000 times.

If one wonders why American audiences are re-posting fake news rather than purchasing subscriptions to the Washington Post, look no further. When the free press falls into disrepair, readers click elsewhere.

Just as the electorate rejected elites at the ballot box in November, so audiences are ditching the establishment news media. They’re tired of journalists accepting fluff for fact, lecturing instead of reporting, and getting the story plain wrong.

If journalists want to know why they’ve lost credibility, they should in many cases read through their own clips. This week has been full of egregious examples.

A Washington Post columnist regurgitated the myth that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin inspired a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona. A writer at the Chicago Tribune accused House Speaker Paul Ryan of trying to steal school lunches from hungry children. And disgraced NBC News Anchor Brian Williams parroted the claim that fake news cost Hillary Clinton the election.

Before the next president takes office, newsmen and newswomen need to remove themselves from the story and report that which they know to be true rather than that which they wish were true. If the industry needs an example they can look to the career of NBC News’ Pete Williams.

When the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon, cable news went into a frenzy, scraping for any detail about the tragedy no matter how wrong. While CNN and even the Associated Press got it wrong, reporting the rumor that the FBI had a suspect in custody, Williams made sure he was right by waiting.

By taking a calm and detached approach to a sensational story, the correspondent solidified his credibility. While others chased clicks and ratings, he refused to report on speculation or comment on rumors. And it worked.

Williams became the authoritative, go-to source because of his dispassionate reporting. In the days after the attack, “NBC’s Pete Williams” started trending worldwide on Twitter and other national outlets began citing their competitor in their coverage.

That example needs to become mainstream if the media want to overcome the credibility that is afflicting them. Sensational headlines and slanted coverage won’t persuade wayward audiences to put down fake news. To compete today, the industry ought to emulate what Williams achieved during a crises that gripped the attention of the entire country.

At a time when good journalism is needed more than ever, news media must return to the standard of fact-based reporting. It’s the only way for the industry to root out its own fake news problem.

Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.