This morning, another wave of panic clutched the nation. News outlets began reporting on a dire situation. Their Twitter accounts called out for despair and dread, for it seemed that America would now be facing yet another new horror: a bacon shortage.
Lured in by the siren call of clickbait, NBC, CBS and USA Today all ran with the news, which stemmed from a USDA report—picked up by the Ohio Pork Council—that said pork belly reserves were at their lowest point in 50 years. How low is low? Reportedly, only 17.8 million pounds remain.
As the report spread, Steve Meyer, vice president of pork analysis for EMI Analytics (yes, apparently that’s a real job) stepped in to quell the public’s hysteria. He told the New York Times, “To imply that there’s going to be some shortage of bacon is wrong. There’s going to be plenty of bacon.” Then Rich Deaton, president of the Ohio Pork Council, admitted that baconshortage.com, a website created by his organization after the release of the report, was a marketing ploy. The whole thing turned out to be a hoax.
This saga comes in the era of the phenomenon of fake news. First, let’s define what we mean by the term fake news. According to Elle Hunt at the Guardian, fake news is “completely made up, manipulated to resemble credible journalism and attract maximum attention and, with it, advertising revenue.” However, fake news has been co-opted as an umbrella term to mean any news story that is, in some way or another, not true.
The Great Bacon Misunderstanding of 2017 is not fake news, even though the New York Times labeled it that way. Reputable news outlets, which otherwise report on the facts, simply misinterpreted a scientific study by the USDA and the Ohio Pork Council latched onto an opportunity to get some press.
When Trump spoke today at the White House in honor of Black History Month, he told his audience, “You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news.”
Trump has brought up the bust story before: First in his bizarre speech to the CIA, and then Kellyanne Conway, his media sorceress, brought it up again to Chuck Todd during a Meet the Press interview after Todd asked why Press Secretary Sean Spicer straight-up lied in his first briefing. She tried to make it sound as though the “mainstream media” lies too by citing Miller’s story (coining the phrase “alternative facts” in the process), as though that should excuse making up facts on the spot to a room full of trained journalists.
But the bust story wasn’t fake news. All that happened was that Time magazine reporter Zeke Miller incorrectly reported that Trump had the bust removed from the White House. He realized his mistake, and on January 24, Time issued a retraction. End of story. Scan the New York Times on any day and you will see probably one retraction, at least. It happens. But we don’t call this venerated news organization fake for making mistakes. Trump, however, used Miller’s mistake to double down on his distrust of media—that journalists are dishonest and unfair.
The media is allowed to make mistakes, and we often do. Some made a mistake in writing alarmists headlines about America running out of pork (to reiterate: we aren’t). The difference between major media and fake news sites is that real journalists don’t build websites meant to look legitimate and then weave fabricated tales out of thin air to get clicks.
Here’s what fake news really is: It’s an untrue story that was intentionally created to actively deceive you. For all the whining Trump and his cronies do about fake news, they have taken advantage of it to the fullest extent of their ability.
According to Craig Silverman, who works for BuzzFeed News and recently did an interview with NPR on the issue, “The Trump campaign itself helped circulate false news stories, 100 percent fake news stories from 100 percent fake news websites.” Though he goes on to say that there’s no evidence that fake news helped Trump win the election, his campaign saw an opportunity not only to peddle misinformation to trick their supporters, but to sow a feeling of mistrust toward journalists. Voters ate it up.
I suppose it could be argued that those headlines posted this morning about the bacon crisis were meant to lure people into clicking links, thereby gaining ad revenue, but the story was still based on a real report. At worst, the reporting was the result of some clever twisting of the facts, not an outright fabrication. Meanwhile, Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump and Sean Spicer are in the business of outright fabrication—or as they call it, “alternative facts.”