Ed Wasserman

Ed Wasserman, dean of the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, is speaking Thursday night at CSU Bakersfield on the proliferation of fake news.

This feedback forum is designed to give readers a way to voice criticisms and compliments or ask questions about The Californian’s news coverage. Your questions — which may be edited for space — are answered here each Saturday by The Californian’s Robert Price.

Price: People toss around the term "fake news" almost cavalierly these days, usually as an all-purpose insult directed at information they don't want to hear. My favorite politician may have engaged in unscrupulous conduct? Evidence be damned — it's fake news! That policy decision I opposed has had a measurably positive impact? That just can't be! Fake news again.

Fake news is, of course, a real thing, and it has a more sinister history than as a kiss-off perjorative. The late, great (and apparently resurgent) Soviet Union disseminated it with diabolical expertise throughout the Cold War and probably never stopped. Dezinformatsiya, the Russians called it — disinformation, or deliberate, purposeful, strategic lies.

Fake news isn't just a Russian export. Khrushchev would be impressed with the way Americans have refined the practice as a political tool to discredit one's opponents. But, more commonly today, accusations of "fake news" are used to deflect.

Fake news, expertly disseminated, has a Teflon quality about it: How do we know which side is making this stuff up? The Trump administration, which has been dealing with a critical, even hostile national media, has used the term to great effect. Trump himself has labeled unflattering but ironclad-accurate reporting as "fake news."

It doesn't help that analysis and outright opinion often creep into stories that are ostensibly "news." Throw in simple errors of fact or sloppy reporting and you've got more fodder for "fake news" accusations.

And suddenly the average American doesn't know who or what to believe.

People have only one recourse if they ever hope to parse fact from opinion and truth from dezinformatsiya. The problem is, though, it takes some work — apolitical discernment, intellectual curiosity.

Many in the journalism field, especially of late, have been working hard to encourage people to apply those things.

One is Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief who is a visiting lecturer at Stanford University.

"Consuming the news is only going to become more complex if we don’t educate people about the difference between credible fact-based reporting and its opposite," she wrote in a recent column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

" ... We need to make sure that everyone with a smart phone — before he or she taps to share a story — has the critical thinking skills and training to determine what is real and what is bunk. ... I would argue that teaching students how to consume digital information should be considered as essential as teaching math or coding or Spanish."

Another is Ed Wasserman, dean of the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, who is speaking Thursday night at CSU Bakersfield on the proliferation of fake news — another installment in the Kegley Institute of Ethics' lecture series. (Two disclosures: I'm a member of the institute's board, and TBC Media is a primary sponsor of Wasserman's address.)

"If you had told me when I first started getting interested in media," Wasserman said at a January media ethics panel discussion in Berkeley, "that 40 or 50 years hence I’d have this device that would give me access to bigger audiences than the widest newspaper on earth ... I would say ‘Well that sounds like paradise.'

“Instead, here we are and we’re finding that there is a dark underside to that ... More people believe things that are not true than perhaps ever before.”

So, do we as a free people have the will to stuff fake news back into the hole from which it crawled? I hope so. Not to be overly dramatic, but American Democracy as we know it hangs in the balance.

Reader: The cussing started before I opened the paper. In clear print, on the cover, it says "a joke between he and the defendant evolved into a real plan …" Such grammar is tolerable in the average high-school graduate, though I don't tolerate it easily. It shouldn't happen anywhere in the damned paper!

— Larry Dunn

Price: I know. That hurts. Not good. My apologies for the grating noise that must have created.


Reader: Just a quick note to express my gratitude for your thoughtful comments in response to the person writing in about my Navy cartoon. That thing went viral within the Naval community … someone posted it somewhere and said that everyone should be outraged and so they were. Anyway. You know how it goes these days. Rock on!

— Jeff Koterba

Price: You're welcome. Jeff, for the rest of you, is the cartoonist for the Omaha World-Herald whose cartoon depicting a U.S. Navy ship crashing into the U.S. Naval Academy drew some criticism. Here too: The Californian published the cartoon as well. I thought Koterba was merely saying, Hey U.S. Navy, do these at-sea tragedies have your attention yet? Not everyone saw it that way. Such is the life of an editorial cartoonist.

The Californian welcomes your comments and suggestions. To offer your input, please call 661-395-7649 and leave your comments in a voicemail message or send an email to soundoff@bakersfield.com. Please include your name and phone number. Phone numbers won’t be published.

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