I came across this Tweet and had to stop myself:
So that’s the front page of The New York Times pre-Iraq War where Powell was laying out the case to the U.N. It’s amusing on an Onion-but-not-really level, but then I noticed Schwartz works for Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept, and when I retweeted him with a bit of commentary, I got an almost immediate response:
Which I considered responding to before deciding to do something better with my time. Like I said, I’d be happy enough to leave it at a “heh, that’s pretty humorous” level if I thought that’s all anyone would take it as, but no, this is the kind of idea that can get spread around just as quickly as the fake news the real news is talking about.
To my first point: it’s obvious, or at least it should be, that The New York Times is not the same as a Facebook meme. NYT is a longstanding newspaper that has done incredibly brave and arduous journalism over the course of its existence, and the men and women there continue to do so. There is a case to be made that it often serves as a mouthpiece for government—or any other nefarious agency of your choosing—as the piece in question demonstrates, but even that can’t in good faith be called the ‘uncritical retransmission’ of fake news. That really did happen. Powell was at the U.N. laying the groundwork for the U.S. case for an invasion of Iraq. The case was fraudulent, that’s without question, but their reports did not come from beyond the ether. They did not materialize from thin air. Even if innumerable claims made by Bush, Cheney, Powell, et al were completely false, they were not invented quotes. NYT caught exactly what they said.
Whether they should have taken the time to challenge the claims Powell made to the U.N. in the report about him speaking to the U.N. is another matter. My own opinion aside, comparing that with Facebook memes—which are almost universally concocted of false claims meant to reinforce the ideas of their target audience—is disingenuous. Say what you will about NYT, but it has a relationship with reality that memes cannot aspire to. They’re not meant to do so.
And this is ignoring that NYT has multiple editors and fact-checkers and filters through which articles like this must pass. When the NYT reports a story, they’re using their institutional status to lend credibility to it, and their reputation suffers as a result. And when their reputation suffers and faith is shaken in their ability to report accurately and truthfully and subscriber numbers go down and so do their journalistic efforts, we suffer, too. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to rely on The Intercept for news. I definitely don’t want to live in a world where memes are seen as credible by normal people.
It’s probably hard to read this as anything but a defense of NYT, and that’s because in part it is. I don’t mean to gloss over their journalistic blunder that in part enabled the invasion. But it also misses the point that NYT toeing the line on this story aided the people who eat up right-wing memes on social media. It helped reinforce their ideas that there are evil Muslim states out there salivating at the idea of destroying the American way of life, and that they’re so incredibly dangerous that we need to completely annihilate them. Even more, I doubt the hordes of people soaking in Facebook memes about the Clinton body count ever read a page of NYT—but maybe that’s just my elitist liberalism talking.
Maybe Schwartz mostly meant it in jest. It doesn’t matter, though, because there are people like this who exist, and there are more people who believe him.