One of the main news stories right now is the proliferation of fake news websites on social media and their potential effect on US elections. One purveyor of fake news drew heavy fire for boasting, “I think Trump is in the White House because of me.”
Meanwhile Google and Facebook announced they would be banning fake news websites from their advertising networks, citing the immense popularity of fake news with partisans on social media this election cycle.
So it’s important now for the independent, critically-minded reader and sharer of news to note and reflect on the amount of fake news stories propagated by mainstream media sources, sometimes unknowingly through unacceptable carelessness and lack of proper journalistic rigor, other times knowingly and deliberately to influence elections or support a policy agenda.
Remember that after this election, even the New York Times, America’s “newspaper of record,” has had to apologize and “rededicate” itself to honesty, fairness, and scrutiny.
This kind of fake news is arguably more egregious than the kind we’ve been hearing about this week because it abuses the trust people have in an ostensibly reputable media source. The following list of 25 fake news stories from the mainstream media shows just how difficult it is to tackle the problem of fake news.
Banning click-bait upstarts will only scratch the surface of a much deeper problem, the systemic duplicity of a corporate mass media that serves entrenched interests and is every bit as interested in monetizing page views as the lone wolf peddler of bogus news.
1. (CBS 60 Minutes) Dan Rather Publicizes Fake Memos About George W. Bush’s National Guard Duty
Less than two months before the 2004 Presidential election, Dan Rathers, one of the most trusted names in news went way out on a limb in publishing unauthenticated National Guard memos that turned out to be forged.
The memos, falsely attributed to Bush’s commander Lt. Col. Jerry Killian suggested that Bush disobeyed direct orders and that the Bush family had exaggerated Bush’s service in the National Guard.
When independent bloggers began to question the documents because they were in a computer word processor font that didn’t exist at the time, CBS defended its reports until Killian’s assistant told them she and Killian did not type the memos. Dan Rather apologized and resigned from CBS.
2. (Huffington Post, New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, et al.) Hillary Has a 98% Chance of Winning The Election
Speaking of fake news to influence a campaign, as everyone knows now, the entire mainstream press painted a very false picture of the electoral odds in the 2016 presidential race. Days before the election, Huffington Post had Hillary Clinton at 98% likely to win the election.
With an electoral college gap of 232 to Donald Trump’s 306, she was soundly defeated and the overwhelming media confidence in the inevitability of her victory turned out to be fake news. It was a blow of historical proportions to the credibility of the mainstream media and its polling methods.
Ironically, the false predictions may have chilled the vote among Hillary Clinton’s supporters and helped to swing the election against her in close races.
3. (Salon, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC, CBS News, et al.) Donald Trump Requests Security Clearance for His Children
A widely reported story on mainstream news outlets this week was that President-designate Donald Trump requested secret security clearance for his kids in an act of nepotistic impropriety.
Banning click-bait upstarts will only scratch the surface of a much deeper problem, the systemic duplicity of a corporate mass media that serves entrenched interest...
The story was reported, among others by CNN, NBC News, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, CBS News, and Salon, which snarkily headlined, “Donald Trump’s trying to give his kids top secret security clearance, making sure his conflicts of interest are extra bold.”
But as USA Today reported, “Despite reports suggesting the contrary, a transition team official says Donald Trump did not request or begin paperwork to have his children gain top-level security clearance, according to a pool report.”
4. (ABC News) In 2009, ABC News Blatantly Lied About The 1 Million Protesters in Attendance, Reports 60,000
This is a bad one because it was so brazenly false. Glenn Beck’s 9-12 March on Washington DC brought in over a million Tea Party protesters to call for lower taxes and less federal spending.
Clear pictures of the crowds from the tops of Washington DC buildings can be cross-referenced with the USA Today/National Park Service schematic for estimating the turnout at President Obama’s inauguration in January earlier that year. The turnout was undeniably one million plus.
But ABC News not only grossly distorted the turnout to a paltry 60,000, they actually went out of their way to correct a mis-attribution of the more accurate figure to them, wanting to be sure everyone was completely clear that their number was 60,000.
5. (CBS News) 1 Million Disenfranchised Black Voters in The 2000 Election
Less than a month before the 2000 presidential election, echoing an unsourced, unproven claim repeated ad nauseam on the campaign trail by presidential candidate John Kerry, CBS News uncritically passed along the (mis)information from the mouth of Rev. Jesse Jackson:
“‘Black votes have been targeted.’ Jackson asserts. ‘In 2000, 2.1 million votes were disenfranchised, 1 million were black.'”
The following January, with the election tallied and over, it was oddly enough CBS News that challenged the authenticity of its own reporting in an article entitled, “The Florida Myth Spreads“:
“Last Thursday’s challenge by certain congressional Democrats to the certification of the 2004 presidential election was but the latest chapter in the urban legend that began four years ago in Florida.
Back then, activists claimed that dogs and hoses were used to keep black voters from the polls. Claims that thousands of blacks were disenfranchised, harassed, and intimidated from voting ran rampant. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights conducted a six-month investigation of the charges and found absolutely no evidence of systematic disenfranchisement of black voters. [emphasis mine] The civil-rights division of the Department of Justice also found no credible evidence that any Floridians were intentionally denied the right to vote.
These findings did little to dispel the myth of massive disenfranchisement.”
Maybe because CBS News itself helped spread the myth three months earlier.
6. (CNN, CBS News, NBC, et al.) TV Networks Call Critical Toss-Up Race in Florida for Al Gore Too Early
In a historically very tight toss-up race in a state with critical electoral votes, the mainstream media’s television networks called Florida too soon for Al Gore in an “embarrassment of major proportions.” Dan Rather was so bold as to make it a guarantee, “If we say somebody’s carried the state, you can take that to the bank. Book it!”
The networks made the call just before 8pm Eastern and were forced to retract their call. By 1:30am the Sunshine State was still too close to call. The earlier pronouncement may have had the effect of chilling votes on either or both sides. The state was eventually carried by George W. Bush.
7. (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC, and MSNBC) TV Networks Falsely Claim The Polls In Florida Are Closed
Remember the election in Florida was extremely close. The number of electoral votes made the state pivotal in the 2000 electoral map. Both campaigns had spent no small fortune to secure those votes.
Anchors on every networked emphasized repeatedly that the polls in Florida would be closed at 7pm Eastern Time. Five anchors made sure to say it more than once: Cokie Roberts on ABC, Brian Williams on MSNBC, Judy Woodruff on CNN, Tom Brokaw on NBC, and Dan Rather on CBS.
Brokaw said, “We want to point out to our viewers that in half an hour, at 7 o’clock Eastern Time, we have a group of critical states that will be closing their polls, including the state of Florida,” following up on that a few minutes later with, “The polls will close in Florida, as we said just a few moments ago, at 7 Eastern Time tonight.”
But the problem with that, and it would be very hard to believe these professional election commentators didn’t know it, was that Florida has two time zones, and the polls in the very reliably Republican panhandle did not close at 7pm Eastern. They closed at 8pm Eastern.
It can’t be interpreted any other way than a deliberate ruse to disenfranchise Republican voters in the Florida panhandle to steal the election for Al Gore, or an industry-wide amateur hour of severe journalistic malpractice.
8. (Washington Post, Miami Herald, Mic, et al.) Sources Falsely Claim Orlando Shooter Used an AR-15 Rifle
In a truly repugnant case of politicizing a terrible tragedy to serve a policy agenda, multiple sources falsely reported that the Orlando nightclub shooter used an AR-15 rifle, a gun heavily targeted by the media and activists for more strict regulation or an outright ban.
An uncorrected article on the Miami Herald still conveys the misinformation: “Orlando shooter’s AR-15: Accurate, lightweight and there are millions.” Another uncorrected article on Mic.com still claims incorrectly that the Orlando shooter used the hated AR-15.
After running a piece incorrectly claiming the shooter used an AR-15, the Washington Post had the journalistic sense to go back and correct the piece, “The gun the Orlando shooter used was a Sig Sauer MCX, not an AR-15,” glibly huffing, “That doesn’t change much.”
9. (Network Television Affiliates) Swing State Television Networks Aired Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s Blatant Lies About John Kerry’s Service
Facebook and social media aren’t the only places where fake news hoaxers buy ads to swing election results. In one of the most famous political hoaxes in US history, a 527 group was formed by Vietnam Veterans who didn’t even serve with John Kerry in Vietnam to air four television ads claiming that John Kerry’s actions in Vietnam were dishonorable, unreliable, and not befitting someone seeking the office of the US presidency. Their claims and credibility have since been widely debunked.
10. (Daily Mail) UK Newspaper Falsely Claims Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, Worked as an Escort
This week the Daily Mail, prompted by some heavy litigation led by the same lawyer who represented Hulk Hogan in his successful lawsuit against Gawker, has retracted a story in which it printed allegations that Melania Trump worked as an escort in the 1990s. The title of the article, which has now been taken down, was, “Naked photoshoots, and troubling questions about visas that won’t go away: The VERY racy past of Donald Trump’s Slovenian wife.”
11. (New York Times) A National Desk Columnist for The New York Times Made A Career There Out of Faking News
Jayson Blair had a bright career at the New York Times that came to an abrupt end in 2003 when he was investigated for fabricating numerous stories. Keep that in mind when you consider the New York Times’ recent rededication to honesty and fairness.
The last time the newspaper of record had to publish a mea culpa, calling the revelations, “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper,” wasn’t enough to keep the paper on track through this election.
The newspaper’s internal investigation found problems with 36 out of the 73 columns Blair had written since transferring to the national desk.
12. (Fox News) Top Fox News Employee Confesses to “Selling” Americans on The Iraq War
Over at Fox News, Laurie Luhn, a top aide to former Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes revealed a lot about the network’s inner workings when she went public with bombshell accusations of sexual abuse by Ailes, who has since resigned in disgrace after multiple other female employees at the news network shared their own similar stories of harassment.
In one expose, it was revealed that Fox News doesn’t live up to its branding as “Fair and Balanced” or other tropes like, “We report, you decide.” Instead, the network had a vested interested in making sure its viewers decided in favor of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
Listen to what Luhn said: “I was very proud of the product. I was very proud of how we handled 9/11. Very proud of how we handled the run-up to the Iraq War. My job was to sell the war. I needed to get people on the air that were attractive and articulate and could convey the importance of this campaign. It was a drumbeat.”
Propaganda is just another way to say: fake news.
13. (Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, CBS) The CIA Recruited Leading American Journalists to Pass Off Propaganda As News
Sometime read the Wikipedia entry about Operation Mockingbird and marvel that you are on a non-profit encyclopedia’s well-sourced article, not some seedy conspiracy blog.
The details read like something you would expect out of Soviet-era Russia, campaign by the Central Intelligence Agency from the 1950s – 1970s recruiting major journalists from respected news sources to present the agency’s propaganda as news.
It wouldn’t be complete without bribes for journalists and publishers.
14. (Rolling Stone) A Completely Fabricated Story of Campus Rape Is Published In A Catastrophic Failure of Editorial Process
In November 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published an article entitled, “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Erdely about a UVA student who was raped by a group of fraternity members at a party, sending the school and community into shock.
As other journalists and bloggers began to note inconsistencies in the story and improprieties in how it was investigate by Erdely before publication, the entire story unraveled until it was soundly discredited.
Rolling Stone issued a retraction and called on Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dean of America’s most prestigious journalism school to investigate what went wrong. His conclusion was a thorough indictment of the magazine’s practices, issuing a report detailing, “how traditional safeguards broke down at pretty much every level of the editorial process.”
15. (Reuters) Photographer Doctors a Photo of Smoke at The Site of an Israeli Airstrike
In 2006, Reuters published photos of an Israeli airstrike in a suburban neighborhood of Beirut. A skeptical American blogger criticized the photo: “This Reuters photograph shows blatant evidence of manipulation. Notice the repeating patterns in the smoke; this is almost certainly caused by using the Photoshop ‘clone’ tool to add more smoke to the image.”
When interviewed by Ynet News, he said, “This has to cast doubt not only on the photographer who did the alterations, but on Reuters’ entire review process. If they could let such an obvious fake get through to publication, how many more faked or ‘enhanced’ photos have not been caught?”
Reuters investigated and fired the photographer.
16. (The Huffington Post, The Independent, International Business Times et al.) Media Falsely Reports Hit and Run in Brussels as Right-Wing Hate Crime
When a Muslim women was struck and knocked down by a hit and run driver in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, mainstream news sources rushed to call it a hate crime perpetrated by a far right wing activist.
The Huffington Post’s headline was later amended, but the URL still contains the original report of a “far right activist” at work. The Independent also corrected the narrative-driven, knee jerk reporting still evident in their article’s URL. So too, the International Business Times.
As the Independent reports in a correction at the bottom of their article, the hit and run driver was a young Muslim local named Mohamed.
17. (The Guardian) UK Newspaper Publishes Chain Email Hoax Claiming President Bush Has The Lowest IQ of Any President
In 2001 after the election of President George W. Bush, a hoax email began circulating claiming that a study of presidential IQs by the Lovenstein Institute of Scranton, Pennsylvania found that George W. Bush had an IQ of 91, the lowest of any US president, while outgoing President Bill Clinton had the highest at 182.
The study was a fabrication and the Lovenstein Institute doesn’t even exist. Neither do the sociologists quoted in the email. But in a stunning display of the journalistic standards at The Guardian, the fairly obvious chain email hoax was published as news! The paper retracted the story when the Associated Press pointed out their error.
18. (CBS 60 Minutes) Lara Logan Reports Fake News Story About Benghazi, Leading to Her Suspension
In 2013, CBS 60 Minutes aired an “eyewitness” report from a security contractor who turned out not to have been present for the events he claims to have witnessed. The story unraveled when it became evident that his reports didn’t match with what he told the FBI.
Facebook and social media aren't the only places where fake news hoaxers buy ads to swing election results.
The boondoggle was a result of poor standards of journalism. No calls were made to the FBI or State Department to verify the contractor’s statements. The misstep left the Washington Post in shock: “That ’60 Minutes’ suddenly and inexplicably got out of the business of fact-checking boggles the mind.”
Perhaps more damaging, the 60 Minutes report “was flawed in other ways, including Logan making unsourced assertions that Al Qaeda was behind the attack that killed four Americans and controlled a local hospital. It’s still not clear where Logan got this information.” Apparently Senator Lindsey Graham had told Logan it was a “fair thing to say” in his opinion, because there had been a “build-up of Al Qaeda types” in the area.
19. (Washington Post) Pulitzer Prize Awarded To Journalist for Fake Story About an 8 Year Old Heroin Addict
In 1980, as the War on Drugs started by President Richard Nixon raged on, a Washington Post journalist named Janet Cooke published a story entitled, “Jimmy’s World,” about an 8 year old heroin addict.
The piece profiled Jimmy’s travails in tragic detail, noting the “needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms,” and chronicling his aspirations to become a drug dealer. The piece resonated so strongly it led to an all-out police search to find the boy and Cooke was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
That’s when Cooke admitted the story was a hoax and returned the Pulitzer, the only person to do so in the award’s history.
20. (The Huffington Post) A Photoshopped Receipt With a One Percent Tip From a “One Percent” Banker Makes Headlines
In 2012, with the Occupy Wall Street movement in full force and rage against “the One Percent” angrily fomenting, The Huffington Post could not pass up on publishing what turned out to be a hoax.
A wealthy banker’s underling and dinner companion was so outraged by a nasty tip the boss left a server on a $133.54 ticket, that the disgruntled employee snapped a picture, showing a tip amount of $1.33 with the word “Tip” circled and an arrow pointing to some harsh words: “Get a real job.”
But the image was Photoshopped and the actual credit receipt on file with the restaurant showed a bill of $33.54, not $133.54. The tip was $7.00, slightly more than the customary 20% for good service.
21. (NBC) Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams Lied About an Iraq War Helicopter Incident
In 2003 Dateline NBC headlined a story, “Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams Was Riding In Comes Under Fire.” In a 2007 retelling of the story, Williams said, “I looked down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us, and it hit the chopper in front of us.” By 2013, Williams said, the helicopter he was in had been “hit … and landed very quickly.”
In February of 2015, Williams had to recant the story after criticism from the Chinook crew who said the helicopter Williams was riding in was not hit by an RPG and that he could not have seen the one that was hit ahead of the one he was riding in because it was a half hour ahead of his flight.
Further scrutiny prompted by this revelation found that Williams had told inconsistent stories about a man committing suicide in the New Orleans Super Dome during Katrina, falsely claimed he was at the Brandenburg Gate the night the Berlin Wall came down, and lied about flying into Baghdad with SEAL Team Six.
22. (The Associated Press, Boston Globe, CNN, Fox News) FBI Criticizes Media for False Reports Regarding The Boston Marathon Bombers
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings in 2013, with the perpetrators still at large, several news sources falsely reported that an arrest had been made.
The FBI released a statement scolding the media for its inaccurate and premature reporting on a sensitive terrorism investigation still in progress:
“Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”
Judy Muller, who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, wrote the New York Times to say:
“I fear we have permanently entered the Age of the Retraction. All the lessons of the past — from Richard Jewell to NPR’s announcement of the death of Gabby Giffords to CNN’s erroneous report on the Supreme Court Ruling on ObamaCare — fail to inform the present. The rush to be first has so thoroughly swallowed up the principle of being right and first that it seems a little egg on the face is now deemed worth the risk.”
23. (The Washington Post, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, et al.) Media Spreads Inflammatory Fake News Story About a Police Shooting in Ferguson, MO
In 2014, when a Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer confronted a suspect who matched the description of an assault and robbery that had just taken place at a convenient store, the young man, 18 year old Michael Brown, fought with the Police Officer, Darren Wilson, struggling to wrest his gun away. When Wilson pursued him on foot, Brown turned and charged at him, and Wilson fired several shots into the front of Brown’s body, killing him.
This was a very delicate tragedy with strong racial overtones, and in a rush to support a racially-charged, inflammatory media narrative, journalists enthusiastically spread a fake news story: that Michael Brown had his hands up and yelled “Don’t shoot!” at the time Wilson fatally discharged his firearm. It turned out to be false. Upon investigation by the Federal Justice Department, eyewitnesses changed their stories or admitted they didn’t see the shooting take place.
The eager embrace of this narrative by the media had real world consequences, stoking tensions and anger in Ferguson and leading to looting of local businesses and protests that turned violent. The shooting happened in August 2014. By March 2015, MSNBC anchor and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart finally offered a mea culpa with a column entitled, “‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Was Based on a Lie.”
24. (The Daily Mirror) Piers Morgan Fired From UK Newspaper for Hoaxing Photos of Iraqi Prisoner Abuse
Before he got his cable television show on CNN, Piers Morgan was the editor of The Daily Mirror, one of the UK’s biggest newspapers, which in 2004, published photos of Iraqi prisoners of war being abused by British Army soldiers from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.
Then the picture editor at The Guardian published a point by point analysis of the photos arguing that they looked to be a hoax. When they turned out to be fake news, Piers Morgan was sacked from the publication, not for his editorial slip, but for refusing to apologize for it.
25. (The Entire Mainstream Media) The Worst Fake News of All Is The True News That Hides The Real News Under a Barrage of Shiny Trivialities
Despite this short list of some of the mainstream media’s worst fake news stories and narratives, perhaps the worst fake news that the mainstream media is constantly, almost by definition, always and necessarily producing, is the technically true, but absolutely banal news that it saturates public attention with to bury, and hide, and misdirect your attention away from more important, more meaningful, more dangerously relevant stories.
That is a subject for an entire article itself, rather than a couple or three paragraphs, but after publishing a list like the one above, as well-documented and discrediting as it is to the entire establishment of journalism, these errors of commission are the shallow end of a murky pool. The deep end where the industry is drowning its audience is the media’s 24/7, perfectly accurate coverage of nothing. The fresh air and bright sunshine above the surface of that pool is the important stories the media doesn’t talk about, glosses over, or only makes a token effort at reporting. And that’s why we’re here.