By Micheline Maynard
Twenty years ago, with a real sex scandal blazing in the White House, Hollywood came up with a dramatic solution to distract attention that seemed just a little far fetched at the time.
A fictional White House adviser and a fictional spin doctor concocted a plan to broadcast a fictional war. Patriotic fever sweeps America. The president’s problems are forgotten. And he wins re-election.
All because of what we would now call fake news.
That was the plot of the 1997 movie, Wag The Dog, starring Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. It was wildly entertaining, and unsettling to think it might be possible.
But in those days before the web was widespread, and editing video was a cumbersome task, it was easy to ask, “Who would ever believe it?”
Fast-forward two decades and a similar scenario has just played out in Washington, amid the all too real sexual harassment scandals that are sweeping the United States.
Project Veritas, an organisation that targets the mainstream media and left-leaning groups, set up a clunky undercover effort to trick The Washington Post into reporting fake news.
In this case, the group allegedly hired a woman to claim that she had become pregnant as a teenager by Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Alabama who has been accused of sexual harassment.
During two weeks of interviews, the woman insisted to the Post that she had a sexual relationship with Moore that led to an abortion when she was 15.
As the Post recounted, she also tried to get the reporters investigating her story to share opinions about what might happen to Mr Moore’s candidacy if she went public with her story.
To the good fortune of its readers, the Post reporters paid attention to an old adage in American journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
They shadowed the woman and spotted her walking into Project Veritas’ New York offices.
The Post then confronted James O’Keefe, founder of the project, who declined to answer questions about the alleged sting.
To quote another old saying in journalism, the whole situation simply didn’t pass the smell test.
But, the lengths to which Project Veritas went to try to trick The Washington Post show that there’s a war going on out there — not a fabricated one, as in Wag the Dog, but a real one to try to sully journalists’ reputations.
Media layoffs create opening for fake news
The timing actually couldn’t be worse. There have been vast job reductions and closings across the journalist landscape, with more layoffs announced just this week at sports network ESPN and The Detroit News, one of the city’s two papers.
That’s created an opening for groups like Project Veritas. As veteran journalists leave or are fired, some are being replaced by younger journalists trained in a completely different era than their elders, who wore scepticism the way previous generations donned fedoras.
Many of these digital natives are judged on output and speed, on being first to post something to the web, on the “buzziness” of their stories and how many readers share them on Facebook or tweet them to their followers.
While there are many talented newer reporters who are careful at their craft, some who are under the pressure to perform might conceivably had believed the woman from Project Veritas, and published or broadcast her account without digging deeper.
Across journalism, there was a tendency this week to congratulate the Post on its caution. But I am also petrified that many journalists are just sitting ducks, and that we are this close to a mishap.
Trump attacks NYT, uses Fox as propaganda arm
President Donald Trump is feeding into this with his constant accusations of “fake news”.
He has attacked numerous news organisations, from CNN to NBC and The New York Times, while praising Fox News, seemingly his propaganda arm.
His press secretaries have freely given false information at their regular news briefings, creating work for fact checkers and headaches for everyone else.
It’s exhausting, and it’s also the way that things simply are now. Journalists can’t just complain that someone like Project Veritas is out to trick us. We have to be extra vigilant about the way we do our jobs — and make sure that the public is on our side.
Wesley Lowry, a reporter at the Post, summed it up on Twitter, suggesting the problem partly lay with media professionals’ misguided assumptions about how audiences viewed them.
Reporters often think that readers and viewers know more than they do about us.
Journalists have been depicted on screen in a variety of ways, most recently in the Academy Award winning film Spotlight.
It painted a special reports team from The Boston Globe as dogged pursuers of justice, willing to spend months painstakingly interviewing victims of sexual assault in order to paint the bigger picture about the Catholic Church that their editor, Martin Baron, insisted they unearth.
When I saw that movie, I burst into tears recognising the many times I had followed leads that became dead ends, only to make one more call and do one more interview.
The real Baron, now the editor of the Post, smiled at me kindly when I babbled my admiration for the work his journalists had done.
But the next movie may not depict us in such a favourable light.
Project Veritas easily could learn from its mistakes with the Post this time, and attempt a more-sophisticated sting of someone else next time.
The sexual harassment scandals that we’ve been investigating could become our own scandals, if the public loses faith in us, and we fail to be as careful as the Post reporters and those at the Globe.
It means checking out every wisp of information, even if we think it seems believable.
Hopefully, our mothers will understand.
Micheline Maynard has worked as a journalist at The New York Times, NPR and Forbes, among other major American media outlets.
Topics: media, social-media, print-media, donald-trump, film-movies, united-states