What we really learned from the Russian co-signers debacle

Was it “fake news” when MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, quoting a single unnamed source, averred without due diligence and sufficient sourcing that Russian Oligarchs had cosigned for Donald Trump’s Deutsche Bank loans? The short answer is “no.” So, what is fake news anyway?

It might be helpful first to say what it is not. A fake news media outlet is not particular about whether or not what it’s reporting is true. It sometimes (but not always) hopes it is, but even if it learns it is not true it will go ahead and report it anyway. Chances are you probably cannot name a genuine fake news media outlet. They aren’t particularly well known, and for good reason. Sensationalistic reporting with obviously dodgy sources and completely amoral practices are seldom even modestly successful.

Despite what Donald Trump says, no member of the mainstream media constitutes a fake news media outlet. By the way, Fox News is not a fake news media outlet. It’s deeply slanted to the right, and it does host commentators who would constitute fake news sources were their opinion pieces represented as news, but their regular news reporting is fact-checked using the same standards as everyone else. They focus more on issues that are favorable to the Right, of course, so much so that they finally dropped their conceit of being “fair and balanced.” But they are not a fake news media outlet in the strict definition of the word.

Fake news is to real news what pseudoscience is to science. If, for example, you place your faith in extra-medical claims and products that shun clinical trials and refuse to publish in, or cannot qualify to be published in, qualified, peer-reviewed medical journals where irreproducible claims cannot survive scrutiny, you are patronizing the fake news of medical science. That’s pseudoscience, not science.

Just as science sometimes gets it wrong, or rushes to publish too soon, real news occasionally publishes fake news, or sloppy news. When science is wrong it admits it. Being composed of human beings, science comes to these admissions too often painfully and reluctantly. But sooner or later science is self-correcting, just as Lawrence O’Donnell was self-correcting when he apologized for reporting that Russians cosigned Trump’s loans.

I hasten to add, that does not mean Russian oligarchs didn’t cosign those Trump loans, only that it’s too early to say for sure, and it’s best left alone until evidence emerges one way or another. Given that Donald Trump is a proven criminal it hardly even matters. His indignation at being falsely accused is as compelling as, say, Ted Bundy’s indignation would have been had he been accused of murdering a woman he’d never met.

Indeed, what’s significant is Donald Trump’s lack of acknowledgment of O’Donnell’s mea culpa, a public act of humility that’s simply beyond Trump’s capacity to emulate. The biggest takeaway from this is not O’Donnell’s mistake but Trump’s littleness. Donald Trump has shown himself yet again to be a petty, small-minded, small man, ungracious, unwilling to extend to others even small concessions of praise when they recognize their own mistakes. Meanwhile Trump demands unquestioning loyalty and uncritical belief in his every utterance, while he refuses to ever admit any mistakes, even in the face of overwhelming, prima facie evidence. The world’s biggest source of fake news is Donald Trump himself.

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