Anatomy of a fake news story

Most people missed it a couple weeks ago, but I didn’t.

“BREAKING: Trump administration considers mobilizing as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants,” read the near breathless tweet from the Associated Press.

Quickly following the tweet was a full AP story, which stated in no uncertain terms, “The Trump administration considered a proposal to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants.”

What does that sound like to you? Trump nationalizing the Guard and sending out roving troops, accosting people and demanding papers? Me too.

Turns out, when you read the actual memo, there was no proposal for Trump to nationalize the Guard, nor turn them into some kind of Soviet-style secret police.

Rather, the memo contained recommendations regarding 287(g) enforcement, which is a long standing policy that permits states to use their National Guard units, in addition to existing authorization for state and local law enforcement, for immigration enforcement actions they are already permitted to engage in.

287(g) enforcement, incidentally, was one of the main features of President Bill Clinton’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Yes, that Bill Clinton.

In short, the memo was weighing how to make it easier for states to utilize that provision of existing immigration law for enforcement.

It was not, as the AP said in its original shoddy report, “Trump weighs mobilizing 100,000 National Guard troops to deport 2 million immigrants.”

That wasn’t the only problem.

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly speaks at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City on Feb. 23. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is at his right. Carlos Barria | Reuters

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly speaks at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City on Feb. 23. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is at his right. Carlos Barria | Reuters

The original story stated unequivocally — without verifying it — that the memo in question was authored by Homeland Secretary Secretary John Kelly. The AP inferred this because Kelly’s name was on the memo’s “From” line.

That statement, however, was wrong. DHS issued a statement after the story was published stating in no uncertain terms that the memo was not, in fact, from Kelly, but was “a very early draft that was not seriously considered and never brought to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly for approval.”

Given how government departments work, this is almost certainly true.

Not only was the memo apparently not from Kelly, but DHS also said in its statement that the memo was “a very early, pre-decisional draft, and was never seriously considered by the Department.”

So, let’s review.

A rather uncontroversial memo is written by, presumably, a low-level employee. That memo is never seriously considered by DHS, John Kelly, and certainly not by President Trump.

AP then prints that Trump himself is considering the mobilization of 100,000 National Guard troops to rove the countryside, arrest illegal immigrants, and deport them.

The rest is history. The story set off an immediate firestorm of insane reactions, from accusations that the administration was eager to set up concentration camps, to rantings about fascism, to (of course) comparisons with Nazi Germany.

This is the very essence of conservative mistrust of the press, encapsulated in one story. And believe me, there are plenty more.

It is not my contention that all journalists are biased and corrupt. Quite the contrary. But to deny that media bias is real is incredibly naive.

I believe that the media is in denial about this fact because they don’t understand how preconceived bias can “infect” coverage, and warp it unfairly. Bias is far more subtle and insidious than the president’s conceptualization of “fake news,” and it doesn’t have to affect “all journalists” to be a huge problem.

What do I mean?

Bias can be as simple as blatantly misrepresenting facts, as the AP did. It is twisting reality to fit the preconceived perspective of the writer, even if they themselves don’t even realize what they’re doing.

It is encapsulated by an uncomfortable number of reporters with barely concealed, obvious political biases employed to write straight news, who later seamlessly move into the political sector to work for politicians.

It happens in the use of imagery, such as a recent story here in Maine about a conflict of interest created by a Democratic lawmaker, accompanied by an image of Republican leadership.

It is having to sit and watch reporters, including one blatant Maine example, that pretend to be objective while simultaneously subjecting us to what can only be deemed outright political advocacy, time and time and time again.

Those of us on the right have seen this so often, for so many decades, that it has reached a boiling point for us. We are sick of the bias, intentional or unintentional, and sick of the manipulation.

Is it any wonder that only 32 percent of Americans have trust in the media? I don’t think it is.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.