March 4, 2017
“Fake news” emerged as a dominant theme of the 2016 US presidential election campaign and has been in the public eye ever since. To now-president Trump, the term refers to CNN, the New York Times, and other outlets that portray him unfavorably; to Democrats, it means politically incorrect websites, blogs, and social media accounts. In this context, it’s not surprising that public trust in the media, in the US and elsewhere, is at an all-time low. (Even Trump appears as more trustworthy in some polls.)
To the libertarian, this is hardly news. The mainstream media has long been part of what Rothbard called the “opinion-molding class,” the group of intellectuals, academics, journalists, and public figures whose essential role is to legitimize the administrative state. Journalists don’t report the news; they shape public opinion by choosing what to report and how to “spin” the story to fit a particular worldview, or “narrative.” This is often deliberate but can be subconscious, because of journalists, like all of us, suffer from confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret ideas and evidence in a way that is consistent with our prior beliefs.
Rothbard, Mises, Schumpeter, and others have written about this phenomenon, but one of the most compelling treatments comes from Hayek, in his classic 1945 article, “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” As Joe Salerno has recently pointed out, this essay is sometimes used to justify a trickle-down model in which academics and other thinkers target their work toward journalists and other intellectuals — what Hayek called the “secondhand dealers in ideas” — who then disseminate the ideas to the general public. But this is not at all what Hayek has in mind. Rather, he offers a blistering critique of the intellectuals (by which he means journalists, teachers, clergy, and other public figures).
The intellectual, according to Hayek, is not an expert or deep thinker; “he need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor need he even be particularly intelligent, to perform his role as intermediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself” (p. 372). Such people wield enormous influence because most us learn about world events and ideas through them. “It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented” (pp. 372-73).
The reports and editors who staff the major media outlets tend to have a particular view of the world, one that puts the state, its functionaries, and its sycophants front and center. Because of confirmation bias, they filter information and events to fit this view. As Hayek puts it (p. 376):
It is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the intellectual that he judges new ideas not by their specific merits but by the readiness with which they fit into his general conceptions, into the picture of the world which he regards as modern or advanced. . . . As he knows little about the particular issues, his criterion must be consistency with his other views and suitability for combining into a coherent picture of the world. Yet this selection from the multitude of new ideas presenting themselves at every moment creates the characteristic climate of opinion, the dominant Weltanschauung of a period, which will be favorable to the reception of some opinions and unfavorable to others and which will make the intellectual readily accept one conclusion and reject another without a real understanding of the issues.Today’s dominant Weltanschauung focuses on the state and state power. Indeed, with a few notable exceptions, modern journalists don’t investigate, analyze, and render an informed opinion. Instead, they function more like press agents for the president or other government officials. During the buildup to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the major US and European news media simply repeated the Bush Administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, the growing threat of Iraq to the world, and so on. Even after this was revealed as fake news, journalists stuck to the script; when the financial crisis hit in 2008, they simply repeated the Bush and later Obama Administration claims that without massive bank bailouts and fiscal stimulus, the entire world financial system would collapse. The media rarely if ever challenge the dominant narrative; they create, shape, and reinforce it in what they report and how they report it.
Indeed, there are plenty of current examples of obvious “fake news” items that are embraced, and reinforced, by the mainstream media, other intellectuals, and academics. One is the oft-repeated claim that “97% of scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming” (AGW). This claim usually refers to a study (Cook et al., 2013) which surveyed a large sample of abstracts of scientific papers dealing with climate change. The majority of those papers expressed no opinion on AGW. Among the minority that did (33%), 97% accepted the view that human activity causes global warming. So not only does the study not survey the views of “scientists,” or even climate scientists, it simply shows that about a third of papers dealing with climate change over the last 20 years made the case for AGW. (See here for other studies claiming to come up with a similar figure.)
Another claim typically treated as factual is that one out of five US female college students is a victim of sexual assault. As Robby Soave has discussed in detail, this claim is based on a largely discredited study — a single study of one university — by psychologist David Lisak. As Soave shows, the study shows nothing of the kind, yet the one-in-five figure is consistently reported as fact by the major media.
It would be easy to come up with more examples. The current obsession over Russian interference in the US election is a likely candidate. The point is that journalists rarely investigate and form independent judgments based on evidence, but rather collect and repeat stories, ideas, and examples that fit their world view. Is it any wonder that the public doesn’t take them seriously?
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.