Fake News Lesson One: Facts


Welcome to the first lesson in my course on mastering fake news. Today we examine four prominent fake news stories and analyze their strengths and weaknesses. In all four cases, the merits of the fake story centered on the use of facts.

Let’s start with the most famous fake news story of 2016, the “Pizzagate” conspiracy:

Hillary, Top Democrats Linked to Child Sex Organization
(Washington; Oct. 30, 2016)–Internal Democratic Party emails released today by WikiLeaks demonstrate that top party figures knew of—and might have participated in—child trafficking and prostitution.
The emails allegedly authored by party official John Podesta identify several pizza restaurants in Washington where children were kept and abused. The emails hint at secret tunnels connecting some of the locations, apparently allowing the Democrats the move between them with impunity.
One source said that presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is among….

This story has been largely debunked. While it might be true that “pizza” is code for “child sex” in some circles, operating a massive child sex ring in secret right under the noses of a million Washington area residents would be difficult. Particularly for Democrats, who are historically inept at keeping secrets or managing large projects of any kind.

While it’s true that the Democratic Party supervised the construction of secret tunnels connecting its offices with several popular pizzerias in the city, this was done to prevent embarrassment at the pizza addiction afflicting many left-leaning politicians in town.

What went wrong here? By identifying the pizza parlors by name, the conspiracy theorists allowed local police to search the facilities and rule out the kind of sex trafficking that was alleged. Using fake names for the restaurants—or not identifying them—might have given this bogus story a longer life.

Let’s turn to a trickier fake news piece:

5-Year-Old Boy Gets Last Wish; Dies in Arms of Santa Claus
(Knoxville, Tenn.; Nov. 20, 2016)–A 5-year-old Tennessee boy with a terminal illness had just one last wish: He wanted to meet Santa Claus. Not long ago, he got that wish.
But the story has a bittersweet ending. The boy, whose name is being withheld at the request of his family, died in the arms of Santa.
The encounter began when a nurse at a local hospital called a professional Santa, Eric Schmitt-Matzen, who rushed to the hospital to be at the boy’s bedside in time to grant his wish.
Schmitt-Matzen said this week that although he could not locate the Hatchable toy that the boy requested, seeing the young man smile at him as the disease claimed his life was….

This one fooled a lot of us. Maybe we just wanted to believe it. Or we couldn’t accept the possibility that anyone would invent such a tale. Apparently, there was no such dying boy, according to local hospital officials.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported the story, and then retracted it. Schmitt-Matzen stuck to his account. However, the Santa reportedly declined to identify the family or even the hospital where the encounter purportedly happened, stating the he wanted to protect the family.

This fake news item could have been salvaged if the author had simply refused to identify the fake Santa or the town where this occurred. Or if he or she had written that the real Santa Claus had visited the dying boy. Try to disprove that one!

Now, a fascinating fake news item from a couple of years ago:

Texas, 3 Other States to Permit Executions by Lightsaber
(Austin, Tex.; June 17, 2014)–Texas has joined three other states that will execute convicts using lightsabers instead of a cocktail of drugs. The Legislature voted 898 to 2 today to approve the new execution method. The two dissenting legislators wanted more information about the cost of the lightsabers.
In recent years, attempted executions in Texas, Louisiana, Indiana and Nevada have been delayed by a shortage of the drugs typically used to kill those sentenced to death. Some states tried home remedies, often to no avail.
Gov. Rick Perry hailed the shift to lightsabers, terming them “an elegant weapon”….

This one was relatively easy to debunk. The crystals that power real lightsabers can be found only on one distant planet. And not every local corrections officer can operate a lightsaber properly. It takes training under a Jedi Master.

Finally, this classic fake news article:

Man Walks on the Moon
(Houston, Tex.; July 21, 1969)–Two men from Earth set foot on the Moon for the first time last night.
As he exited the Apollo spacecraft and stepped into the gray lunar dust, astronaut Neil Armstrong declared: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” He was soon joined by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
The moon landing was hailed as an historic event….

People who claimed at the time that the moon landing was staged in Hollywood were laughed down. But we now know that they were right. Sending a spaceship to the Moon? If it were possible, Elon Musk would have done it.

The Fake News Quiz


There’s so much fake news out there, it’s getting more difficult every day to determine what is true and what is manufactured out of thin air. Some fake news is designed to influence elections. Other fake news is created to market products or simply draw attention to its egotistical authors. But whatever the reason, it’s bothersome. At times, it’s embarrassing to get fooled by it.

So, the In Sight blog is providing this quiz to help you separate fake news from the real thing.

Here are several recent news stories. See if you can determine which one of these is fake. Answer at the end. Good luck.



“Dark matter,” the mysterious stuff that makes up a majority of the matter in the known universe, has eluded scientists for decades. But, thanks to a sensitive new instrument, they might have located a significant portion of it. And in our own back yard, cosmically speaking.

A new machine that scans the universe for fluctuations in the space-time continuum found a large distortion of gravity centered about five miles west of Provo, Utah. After consulting Google Maps, a team of scientists in moon suits traveled to the source of the phenomenon, a sprawling ranch home in which the Peavy family lives.

“We’re not hoarders,” Mrs. Peavy reportedly told the scientists when they knocked on her door. “We just don’t like to throw away things. You know how one thing leads to another.”

Scientists say the family has added on to the house repeatedly over the past 34 years; it now covers more than 120 acres, every room stuffed to the rafters with junk. “There’s an original Guttenberg Bible in here somewhere. And the first Superman comic. Now if you just bear with me, we can go look….”


President-Elect Donald Trump said he will enhance his Mexican border wall plan by adding cutting-edge technology. Instead of building a physical wall across the border of U.S. and Mexico, Trump said, he will create a “Death Star” that will enforce security from orbit.

Trump would not provide a cost estimate for the project, stating only that it will be “huge.”

The president-elect said that the revised project will create jobs in all red states, whereas focusing on border states would have provided employment to many residents of notoriously Democratic California. “We will draw on the technological expertise of Americans from around our country to build and launch this new enforcement mechanism.”

Trump aides said that the orbiting station will have high-powered cameras and lasers to zap people attempting to cross the border illegally….


Police in Miami and surrounding counties say they are baffled by the recent onslaught of marauding polar bears. Authorities say that as many as 100 of the bears have been spotted on city streets and in suburban neighborhoods, traveling in packs or wandering individually.

Traffic has been disrupted in the central business district; trash cans have been overturned in several communities; and public swimming pools have been inundated with the polar bears, which normally limit their activities to colder regions. The average daily high temperature this week in Miami was 87 degrees.

While some children have been delighted to see the snow-white creatures, several parents have reported maulings. The Coca-Cola Co. said that none of the polar bears they use in holiday commercials is missing.

Government scientists said they see no possible connection between the polar bear invasion and the much-debated theory of climate change….


The College Football Playoff Selection Committee came under heavy criticism today after its IT director said that the results of the panel’s voting might have been influenced by computer hackers.

There were some raised eyebrows in the sports world when the much-anticipated playoff results were revealed at a morning news conference. While undefeated Western Michigan secured the first of four playoff spots, the number two selection was Moscow State University, the number three choice was Russian State University for the Humanities, and the final playoff spot went to Trump University.

The Selection Committee chairman said he was confident that the results will withstand any audit. “While three of the chosen teams do not have players, equipment or a fan base, we feel that the choices will add a new element of excitement to the playoffs,” he stated.

The football team from the KFC commercial finished fifth, just out of the playoffs. A KFC spokesman threatened to….


Elvis Presley and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis have been found alive and living in a remote village in Ecuador.

The celebrities, long believed to be dead, were discovered accidentally by a Girl Scout troop that became lost in a jungle while playing Pokemon Go, according to the U.S. State Department. While no DNA tests have been conducted to verify the identity of the famous pair, and officials in Ecuador would not comment, the Girl Scout leader said she had no doubt about the finding.

“They have aged well,” said the scout leader. “They asked us not to disclose their exact location, for the sake of their seven children, and we will of course comply.”

The scout leader said that Jackie refused to talk to her but Elvis seemed relieved to have his secret relationship with the former first lady revealed at last. “I’m in love,” Elvis reportedly commented, adding: “I’m all shook up.” …

ANSWER: It turns out that all of these news stories are true. Keep reading the In Sight blog to make sure that you get the news you need from the source you trust.


An Open Letter to the Winners


This is a letter to one half of the United States from the other. It is to the people who demanded change at any cost from those who favored a more nuanced approach to governance. It is to the largely rural, mostly white, moderate-income, moderately-educated America from the mostly urban, racially mixed, middle-income to upper-income, more-educated America.

This is a letter to the winners of 2016–from the losers of 2016.



We accept the will of the voters. We respect you and wish you well. We don’t take this loss personally. Our failing is that not enough of us came out to vote—though, at last count, Hillary Clinton did receive more popular votes than Donald Trump. Bottom line: You control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Soon you will control the Supreme Court. It’s your government now. Please treat it with care.

We are trying to understand you.

We know that you feel a great deal of anger and frustration. Automation and globalization have been very unkind to you. You feel that the government has let you down as well. What we don’t understand is how, in expressing that anger and frustration, you could lash out so blindly and be seduced by grandiose, unrealistic promises.

We really thought—we really prayed—that you were better than that. Please tell us how we misread you.

We would like for you to understand us.

Yes, we prefer our café lattes and artisanal beer to your black coffee and Budweiser. But our hopes and dreams are the same as yours.

We want you to know that we care about his country every bit as much as you do. We want you to know that we are just as scared as you are. You have every right to fear the loss of economic opportunities and the prospect of the government taking away your guns. But we have just as much right to fear the possibilities of a global depression and nuclear proliferation.

We are a diverse, intelligent, caring side of America, just like you.

We do not expect compassion.

Even if you choose to dislike us, we do ask one favor: Please compromise. Not for our sake, but for yours. Dismantle Obamacare if you must, but please come up with some kind of health care system that low-income people can afford. Deport illegal aliens if you must, but don’t leave small businesses without the employees they need to survive.

You have great burdens.

Please attack the issues—not your opponents. We will oppose huge tax cuts for the wealthy because there is historical proof that they hurt you the most. We will oppose immigration practices that target people based on religious preferences because they are legally and morally wrong. We will oppose efforts to dismantle our military alliances because they are a significant protection for millions of people. We will oppose unqualified nominees for the Supreme Court.

We will do all these things because we believe that what we are doing is right for America. Attacking us will only distract you and your politicians from your daunting agenda.

The time will come when you lose.

It might happen in four years. It might take longer. Sooner or later, you will be on the other side of this phenomenon. When it happens, do not take it personally.

When you lose, we will undo the damage that your politicians have inflicted upon our country, no matter how long it takes or how hard we have to work. We will take satisfaction in the patience and perseverance we have demonstrated while your politicians ran the country. We will restore the economy. We will tear down the walls of prejudice and hatred. And—despite all of our differences–we will embrace you.

Campaign Survival Guide


Unless you have been living under a rock, you have been bombarded with news and propaganda about the Nov. 8 elections. It’s only going to get worse during the final days. Here are tips to survive the remainder of the 2016 campaign:


It’s not just the headlines on the evening news. The commercials are offensive as well. For example: Trump tried to have sex with all 37 Radio City Rockettes. Hillary emailed secret Coca-Coca formula to Pepsi executives. Shadowy organizations with indecipherable initials like the DCCCCC spend millions to bombard us with dubious claims about the other side—especially at this point in the campaign, when it’s too late to deny or counter the charges. If you must watch the tube, record your shows and fast-forward through the commercials.



These days, the papers are filled with shock-value headlines. Perhaps that’s because, if they weren’t filled with such headlines, no one would read them anymore. Recognize that the papers are likely to give you heartburn while you eat your Wheaties. Trump plans to deport all residents of Blue States. Hillary invites alien civilization to settle in North Carolina. Similarly, the internet is filled with wild, unsubstantiated claims—with the exception of this blog, of course. If you venture onto the web, expect to encounter some really absurd fantasies. Trump fired contestants on The Apprentice. President Obama fathered two black children.


Campaign mail is particularly nasty, but it is easily avoided. Treat it like bills. Stick it in a drawer for a few weeks. Trump: I’d like to punch the Pope. Hillary: I thought Benghazi was a pain-relief cream.


Campaign staffers are trying to get you to go door to door to get out the vote, or simply to persuade you to vote for their candidate. And pollsters are trying to figure out who you are voting for. Some people who identify themselves on the phone as pollsters are actually campaign staffers pretending to be pollsters. Others are insurance salespersons pretending to be pollsters. Let the phone ring and go to voicemail until Nov. 9. Would you still vote for Trump if you knew that he fantasized about having sex with Mother Teresa? Would you still vote for Hillary if you knew that she gave our secret nuclear codes to North Korea?


Please do vote. But as you approach your polling location, avoid being intimidated by people trying to talk to you or hand you items such as fliers, sample ballots, money, guns and drugs. If the weather permits, wear a heavy coat and gloves, and keep your hat pulled down over your face. Talk to no one. Look straight ahead. If it’s too warm for a coat, cover yourself in bubble wrap and ignore the handouts and shouting. Trump plans to install a casino in the West Wing. Hillary is considering Satan for Secretary of State.


It could be a long night. It could be a disappointing night. Even if your candidate wins, it probably won’t be a particularly cheerful night.

But at least it will be over.

Obama: ‘I’m Coming for Your Guns’


President Obama has scheduled an unprecedented roundup of Americans’ privately owned firearms for Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Long rumored by the NRA, supporters of Donald Trump and others concerned with the weakening of Second Amendment rights, the forced retrieval of all forms of guns has been secretly scheduled very close to the end of the president’s final year in office.


The In Sight blog received confidential information from WikiLeaks about the controversial roundup. The information could not be verified, and details remained sketchy. Here is what is known:

Federal agents will go door to door beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 9–and continuing for at least 24 hours–until they have confiscated every gun, pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun, bazooka, grenade, grenade launcher, rocket launcher, automatic weapon, semi-automatic weapon, quasi-automatic weapon, machine gun, submachine gun, anti-aircraft missile, ICBM, dirty bomb, clean bomb, nuclear bomb, carbine and musket.

The visits—officials declined to call them “raids” in planning documents—will occur at homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, airports, train stations, bus stations and anywhere else that Americans congregate. The heaviest concentration of agents will be sent to Starbucks outlets.

The WikiLeaks documents include a partial transcript of a recent planning meeting held in a bunker underneath the White House. It reads:

POTUS: Will there be enough federal agents to go to every door in America? That’s a lot of addresses.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: We will deputize many temporary federal agents for the duration of the roundup. Our first round of deputies will be federal, state and local government employees, plus school teachers, librarians and tax accountants.

POTUS: And if we need even more?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

POTUS: Sounds good. Where will we put all the guns?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: We plan to fill school buses with them and haul them to an Air Force base in [redacted], where we will melt them down. The metal will be used for ornamental sculptures demonstrating the horror of gun violence.

POTUS: Clever. But why Nov. 9? Isn’t that the day right after the election?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: We thought that everyone would be so exhausted after watching the returns that they would hardly notice.

POTUS: Not bad. Speaking of the election, has anyone talked to Hillary’s campaign people about this plan?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: We briefed them, of course. She was not happy.

POTUS: Really? I thought she was in favor of gun control.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: She is. She just wanted to do the roundup herself, after she is inaugurated.

POTUS: Too bad. [Chuckling heard throughout room.] Did you brief Trump’s people?

[Roaring laughter heard throughout the room.]

POTUS: I didn’t think so. Seriously, though. What do we do if anyone resists when we show up at their door? We don’t want any violence.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: We will be filming a video message that we can play for them on any device. In it, you will assure them that we need to end the scourge of gun violence. There will be a second version of the video, for real tough cases. In that one, you inform them that it will be your pleasure to pry their guns from their dead, cold…. [end of transcript].

Remember, you read it first on the In Sight blog.

If you are a gun owner, at least you know. There’s still time to move to Honduras or to build that underground survivalist shelter. Just remember, once you lock the hatch, you won’t see the inside of a Starbucks for a long time.

The Media: Down in the Mud


The role of the news media in the 2016 election troubles me.

Maybe after the dust settles it will be easier to judge our mistakes and excesses. We are in the heat of a campaign that is completely unprecedented in so many ways. Both candidates have negative ratings with the electorate. One party is in danger of being torn apart. Allegations of sexual assault are flying left and right. The media feeding frenzies that have accompanied these events have been fascinating—like watching a train wreck–but disconcerting nonetheless.


Most of the extreme media treatment has been directed at Donald Trump, of course. In a sense, the media created Trump as a national political figure. Thank “The Apprentice” and Trump’s birther claims. During the early stages of the 2016 Republican primary contest, journalists interviewed Trump almost nonstop. He was “good copy”—the kind of entertaining interviews that sell newspapers and boost ratings. Because almost no one took him seriously as a candidate, it seemed harmless.

Then came Trump the frontrunner and Trump the nominee. Calling immigrants “rapists” and attacking family members of opponents was judged by the media to be outrageous, and with good reason. Trump’s rallies got ugly, with the candidate failing to urge restraint as his supporters punched protesters and yelled that Hillary Clinton should be jailed or executed. Trump barred some news outlets from attending his events, increasing tensions between the candidate and the mainstream media.

Clinton has been under less of a microscope, in part because she has refused to double down on her own indiscretions. The revelations about her misuse of email accounts were a little too weak for the Trump campaign and the media to make into an earth-shaking scandal. Issues regarding her foundation were also tough to pump up. Her public description of Trump supporters as “deplorables” did not get as much traction in the media as some of Trump’s middle-of-the-night tweets, however. The WikiLeaks release of Clinton emails that some people said proved that she would coddle Wall Street came on the same day that the “Access Hollywood” Trump dirty-talk video surfaced, so it was barely noticed. Timing is everything.

Now, about that dirty-talk video. When I was a reporter for The Washington Post, I covered state and local politics. My editors and I did not have to deal with issues that were this big or this sensitive, so it’s difficult for me to criticize today’s national campaign reporters. Back then, we didn’t have the plethora of blogs and social media that we have today. Instant information sources are competing with traditional print and TV media for the hearts and minds and dollars of Americans. Decisions about what to publish or broadcast are influenced by what people are saying online. News is history in a hurry, and there is immense pressure on editors. Go too far or publish prematurely, and the public and the campaigns condemn you. Get beat on a juicy story—well, that’s not an option.

I get it. But some bits of coverage have been particularly inexcusable, despite this pressure. On a recent Saturday, I watched a CNN anchor pummel a Trump supporter with nonstop “How can you defend…?” questions, so much so that the supporter could not even speak. Another unfortunate practice is the prominent use of question headlines such as “Will Trump Quit Race?”–especially when he said that he would not. And don’t get me started about huge headlines with terms such as “Piece of Ass.”

Meanwhile, legitimate debate about taxes, jobs, immigration, foreign policy and other key issues gets lost. Moderators on the televised debates have raised some of these issues, but these moderators have also gotten down in the mud with Clinton and Trump by asking them to respond to each other’s allegations and personal flaws. And the moderators wonder why they have a hard time getting the candidates to behave like adults.

Trump has done himself a lot of damage this year. Clinton has shot herself in the foot as well. We don’t need the news media destroying them—and the media’s own credibility–at the same time.


Why I Feel Sorry for Trump


I feel sorry for Donald Trump. I really do.

I do not believe that the Republican presidential nominee will get what he really wants, whether he wins or loses the election. As for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, it remains to be seen whether victory would bring her happiness.

Based on the candidates’ words and actions–at their first debate and in other settings—their motivations have become fairly apparent. These motivations are important because they will shape the presidency of whoever wins.


Trump craves adulation. He talks all the time about the people who love him. He is most comfortable in a rally in which 99 percent of the attendees are his supporters and the other 1 percent are the protesters whose ejection serves to rev up the crowd. He likes Russian leader Vladimir Putin a lot—because Putin has said nice things about him.

If Trump were president, he would gain a small measure emotional gratification from the trappings of power and the visitors coming to bow to him. It would be the culmination of a career in which he always wins—or, at least, he thinks that he always wins. But this enjoyment would be short-lived.

Trump would soon discover that government is not a business and cannot be run like one. It exists to serve the people. There are economic deals that can be made; maybe he can persuade the pharmaceutical industry to cut drug prices for the needy, for example. There are relationship deals that can be made; it’s called diplomacy. But the president can’t force the Mexican president to pay for a border wall. Nor will bluffs prompt North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. In the private sector, failed deals often are invisible and harmless; not so in the public sector. Remember Iran/Contra?

I suspect that Trump would try to outsource most administration of the government to his staff. But the president needs to be familiar with every country and every head of state and every budding insurgency and key aspects of the government agencies under his control. That takes a lot of thankless work. I don’t think he wants to be bogged down with briefing books until midnight. So he works harder than he wants to or he loses control of the reins of power–either of which will lead to misery.

His economic plan is based on massive tax cuts. If they don’t pass, he’ll be miffed. If they do pass, the economy will crash and he’ll be really miffed. A man who can get furious over a malfunctioning debate microphone and a fact-checking moderator will find many more reasons to be unhappy with the weight of the presidency on his shoulders. It’s clear that a Trump victory would not bring him the love that he craves.

If Trump loses the election, he will carry that epic fail for life. He can spin it all he wants. He can file lawsuits, harangue the news media and take his case to the American people that Clinton or somebody stole the election from him–whatever conspiracy theory seems to work. But either he gets sworn in or Clinton does.

After defeat, he could return his focus to his real estate empire, but I suspect that sheltering income from taxes won’t carry the same thrill that it once did. Maybe he could return to reality television. Imagine the ratings if he joined a certain former beauty pageant contestant on “The Biggest Loser.” I don’t foresee Trump receiving a warm welcome in Republican Party circles or finding success in any third-party political initiative. So, win or lose at the polls, his ego is going to suffer.

As for Clinton, my sense is that she is less concerned about her popularity than she is about pure power. The secrecy with which she has conducted her public life suggests a person who is content to be largely ignored by the common folk as long as they vote for her. If she wins, she gets her power, though a hostile Congress and a public that that mistrusts her won’t help her efforts to govern.

The victor in 2016 might be a one-term president. The federal debt and terror at home and abroad are going to make it very difficult for anyone to maintain the enthusiastic support of the people that is necessary to be re-elected. This is a fickle electorate. Americans love divided government and hate gridlock in Washington, but they keep voting for the former and wondering why they get the latter.

Perhaps four years from now the choices will look better than they do today. I certainly hope so.