Editor’s note: Please continue to enjoy this free preview of Ray’s unique perspective and unmistakable candor, and be sure to check back in coming weeks to find out how you can keep on reading Worcester’s best commentary without becoming a Sun member when the preview ends. Ray can be reached via email at Mariano@worcester.ma.
“In politics, an absurdity is not a handicap.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
Fake news has been around for a long time. We just didn’t call it that.
Anyone who has ever stood in line at a supermarket checkout has seen the bizarre stories of aliens and crying celebrities screaming from the front pages of sleazy tabloids, which have little or nothing to do with reality.
To some extent, we saw this as harmless fun. We all knew the stories were baloney.
Of course, the celebrities who were defamed by these stories did not see them as harmless. From time to time, those whose names were trumpeted in the headlines even filed lawsuits to reclaim their dignity.
In 1976, Carol Burnett sued the National Enquirer and was initially awarded $1.6 million for falsely being accused of being drunk when she met Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. More recently, Katie Holmes sued Star magazine for $50 million because it falsely suggested that she was addicted to drugs. The magazine was forced to publicly apologize as well as make a sizable donation to a charity of Holmes’ choice.
But most of us already knew the stories were bogus and we figured that little harm was done, even if we were grossly insensitive to those individuals being harmed.
Governments and their associated spy agencies have been involved in fake news for decades. In the old days we called it “propaganda” or “disinformation.” Government agents spread lies to gain political advantage over their adversaries. The United States, like all other major powers, was an expert at it.
In recent years, fake news has moved from the tabloids to social media. Unlike the tabloids that most of us know are phony, social media has been an incubator for made-up stories disguised as real news. In fact, people have made money by creating websites and online postings that were nothing but ridiculous garbage.
The more outlandish, the more “clicks”; the more clicks, the better.
Along with making him a great deal of money, Paul Horner bragged to the Washington Post that his fake news posts on Facebook helped elect Trump.
Among those posts was a made-up story about the Clinton campaign paying a Trump protester $3,500. “My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time,” he said. Included in those individuals picking up his fake news were Trump’s son, Eric, and Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Recently, Buzzfeed published a news story that reported that Russian officials had information detailing scandalous behavior by Trump. It published the sensational report even though it could not substantiate the accusations. CNN had previously reported that intelligence officials gave Trump, President Obama and eight members of Congress a summary of allegations that indicated that Russian agents have compromising information on Trump.
Of course, Trump was indignant.
FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
Ironically, many in the mainstream media came to Trump’s defense and said that Buzzfeed had crossed the line and should not have published a report that was unsubstantiated. This particular report had been circulating for months.
I agree with those reporters and editors who said that publication without substantiation was wrong. But you have to admit that there is a great deal of poetic justice here.
Donald Trump is not the originator of fake news – but he has certainly become its master. There has never been another political figure that has personally spread more vicious lies about his opponents than Trump. Here are just a few examples:
1.) In 2011, when he was publicly talking about whether to run for president, Trump led an attack questioning whether President Obama was actually a native-born American citizen. He claimed to have sent private investigators to Hawaii to search for the truth.
Here are tweets Trump sent that knowingly promoted the false claim that President Obama’s birth certificate was fraudulent:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2012
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 23, 2014
2.) Last May, during the heated presidential primary, Trump alleged that Ted Cruz’s father was with the man who assassinated President Kennedy shortly before Kennedy was shot. Incredibly, Trump cited a story in the National Enquirer.
During a phone interview with Fox News, Trump said, “… what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting? It’s horrible.”
3.) Trump said that he saw “thousands of people cheering” in Jersey City, New Jersey, when the twin towers came down on 9/11. He noted that Jersey City has a large Arab population. When pressed by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, who said that there was no evidence to support his claim and that police said that the incident Trump described never happened, Trump insisted, “I saw it.”
And of course, many Trump supporters and surrogates who had leading roles in the campaign followed their master’s lead and spread terrible rumors about opponents. Here are a couple of the more prominent examples:
1.) Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s soon-to-be national security advisor, retweeted an outrageous story six days before the election that said Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex ring. He also retweeted a bizarre story about Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta drinking blood and being involved in occult rituals. These stories are lies and Flynn knows it.
2.) Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried repeatedly to convince people that Hillary Clinton had a mysterious illness that she was keeping from the public. Despite medical evidence provided by Clinton’s doctor saying she was in excellent health, Giuliani said, “all you have to do is go online.” Conspiracy theory websites used fake medical documents to promote the fabricated story.
So now our soon-to-be president is angry that someone turned the tables and hit him right between the eyes with a barrelful of fake news buckshot. Nobody likes having vicious, vile things said about them, especially in public. But now Trump is on the receiving end of the sword.
And let’s be clear: While Buzzfeed’s decision to post a report it could not independently verify ran afoul of journalistic ethics, the claims in the report are merely unsubstantiated – not necessarily untrue. Trump, by contrast, has promoted and benefited from information he knew was false – lies he helped manufacture.
The media was right to cry foul on the Buzzfeed story. As the old saying goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Just because Trump has been a purveyor of lies and scandalous gossip does not make it right that the same thing should happen to him.
But it truly is poetic justice.
Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He is the former mayor of Worcester and former executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority. Ray grew up in Great Brook Valley and holds degrees from two city universities. He comments on his hometown every Sunday in Worcester Sun.