In The Media

What the Pope Gets Wrong About Fake News

by Jack Shafer (feat. Heidi Tworek)

January 24, 2018

I thought I had a deal with the Vatican. Its popes would run Vatican City, provide spiritual guidance to the faithful, appoint bishops and cardinals, issue encyclicals and explore exotic locations in their Popemobiles. Meanwhile, I would oversee press criticism.

This arrangement has worked extraordinarily well over the decades. But today, Pope Francis veered from his lane into mine at a high rate of speed by releasing a naïve bit of press-crit titled “The Truth Will Set You Free: Fake News and Journalism for Peace.” In it, he diagnosed the causes of fake news and prescribed his cure. The nerve of that guy! Do I step on his turf by officiating at beatification and canonization ceremonies?

His Holiness gets off to a fine start by defining fake news as “disinformation.” This neatly separates him from our blockhead president, who regards any criticism of him or any news stories that don’t praise him as fake. Then, the pope squanders this advantage. He fails to provide one example of fake news to illustrate his thesis, leaving it to his congregations’ imagination whether he’s talking about Pizzagate, alleged no-go zones in the Netherlands or the charges of massive voter fraud in the 2016 election. Fake news, the pope maintains, exists because evil-doers have willed it into existence.

I’m not kidding. In a belabored parable, Francis compares the promulgation of fake news to the acts of treachery and temptation performed by Satan when he took the form of a serpent and whispered his untruths to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the pope’s view, fake news is primarily a supply-side thing, created by those with a “thirst for power.” Consumers of fake news, he holds, are “victims “ and “unwilling accomplices” whose “instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration” make them easy targets of exploitation.

Who possesses the courage to tell the pope that he’s skating on thin ice by presenting himself as a dispeler of disinformation or even an impartial guide to the truth? Surely Francis knows nonbelievers regard the good news he preaches about God sending his son to Earth to redeem humanity as a bouquet of fake news, engineered to exploit the emotionally vulnerable the same way he thinks fake news does. The Catholic Church’s celebration of miracles and apparitions and its promise of life everlasting to the devout subtract from whatever authority the pope might have adjudicating fake news from true.

More to the point, the pope’s grounding in journalistic history—how do we phrase this delicately without antagonizing Bill Donohue of the Catholic League?—stinks. Writing in Politico in 2016, Jacob Soll traced fake news back to the advent of print 500 years ago, when publishers printed “spectacular stories of sea monsters and witches “ and “made claims that sinners were responsible for natural disasters.” As I wrote, the American press in the 1800s overflowed with hoaxes, stunts, pranks and hogwash such that our era looks tame in comparison. Fake news slithers into print and onto the Web not because bad people want to take advantage of good people. It endures because there’s a demand for it, a demand that has little to do with the rise of social media, as the pope seems to believe is the case.

Historian Heidi Tworek notes that the pope gets it completely wrong when he places the responsibility for eradicating fake news on the shoulders of journalists. As she points out to me, it’s not journalists who are spreading disinformation and falsehoods, so how exactly can it be their responsibility to stop fake news? “Ironically, by having high standards (e.g., corrections), [journalists] can be played by Trump, who seizes on every mistake and failure to live up to high journalistic standards as evidence of ‘fake news,’” Tworek says.

Proving that he missed the “public journalism “ (aka “civic journalism”) boomlet of the late 1990s, led by James Fallows and Jay Rosen, the pope calls for the creation of a “journalism of peace.” Created by people for people, the pope’s journalism of peace would be “less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts” and more “committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.” I would never say never to the pope’s vision, but based on this sketch he thinks journalists should transform themselves into social workers.

After reading Pope Francis’ musing on fake news and journalism, I had to ask myself: Doesn’t the Vatican have a rewrite desk where it vets and punches up his copy? At the very least, the pope should have called on St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and journalists, to intervene on his behalf. Although St. Francis wasn’t exactly a fount of hot copy, as his guide to the devout life proves, he possessed the tenacity of a real news hawk. When the Calvinists he attempted to convert back to Catholicism slammed doors in his face or threw rocks at him, he soldiered on, slipping the doctrinal pamphlets he’d written under their doors.

The pope’s intentions are good, but the idea that even he can snuff out fake news is a little grandiose. As the parable of the snake shows, it’s hard to keep us humans from sharing forbidden fruit. According to legend, the last word St. Francis ever uttered was “humility.” Dare I suggest the pontiff heed this sage advice?

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