This story was written by Grand Rapids Legal News writer Cynthia Price and was originally published by the Legal News on March 24, 2017. It is reprinted here with permission of Detroit Legal News Publishing LLC.
It is difficult to find anyone who is in favor of what has come to be called “fake news,” but for some, the challenge it poses to truth and the rule of law is a subject they view as of overriding urgency.
Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School Professor and Auxiliary Dean Martha Denning Moore is one of those people.
At a panel discussion Wednesday hosted by WMU-Cooley and sponsored by the Michigan Capital Chapter, American Society for Public Administration (known as ASPA/MICAP), Prof. Moore led out with a fiery speech about the need to hold purveyors of news accountable for the information they put foward.
“Truth is not optional,” she said. “It is necessary for maintenance of our democracy. Not only will the truth set us free, it will keep us free. So, we can’t just go our merry way — we can’t be passive consumers of information.
“Truth matters. We must seek it, we must pursue it. Truth is not the same as the most persuasive argument, and it is not a merger of options. We have to hold people accountable for their actions.”
Moore knows whereof she speaks. Prior to joining WMU-Cooley, she practiced in legal ethics and legal malpractice defense as an attorney for Moore and Pozehl; before that, she was staff counsel for the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission.
A firm believer in a strong ethical system in the law and in life, Moore has published a number of articles consistent with her philosophy, including “Reclaiming Civility”and “The Ethical Duty of Communication.”
As Moore finished, Moderator Meegan Holland, herself a former journalist and now the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency Senior Policy Advisor, commented, “I love your passion.”
Holland also noted that she agreed with Moore’s reluctance to use the term “fake news.” The title of the event, “Social Media and the Ethics of Fake News,” notwithstanding, both Moore and Holland said they find the term misleading, since it implies there are shades of truthfulness permissible in reporting.
The other panelists were both working journalists: Emily Lawler, a reporter for MLive who covered the Trump campaign in Michigan and currently has the capitol beat for the statewide news organization; and John Lindstrom, the long-time publisher of Gongwer News Service.
In his welcoming remarks, WMU-Cooley Dean and President Donald LeDuc noted, “I’m opposed to poor ethics in any context.” Also referring to himself as “an unrepentant former public administrator” (working primarily in State of Michigan offices), he thanked ASPA/MICAP for putting the panel together.
Then Dean LeDuc added more seriously, “Our country’s embroiled in the greatest test of our country’s structure since the Civil War. There’s never been a more interesting time to be a law student, or to be in government — certainly not to be in administration of the law.”
Lindstrom, a seasoned professional whose specialty publication is aimed at decision-makers and politicians, pointed out that, historically, there has always been fake news, including falsely staging influential events. What makes it different now is the ability to disseminate information immediately, and without the filter that fact checkers provide.
“From the standpoint of a practicing journalist,” he said, “there’s an old saying ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’ That’s the essence of what we are supposed to do as an industry, and in many respects that’s really what we should do as citizens of a free republic, and, frankly, as adults.”
Lawler is more of the generation that grew up comfortable with social media, but she expressed dismay at what widespread use of Twitter and Facebook has done to her own profession, and the distrust that causes in the eyes of the general public.
She said, “One of the most enlightening articles I read, right after the election, was in the Washington Post. They profiled some producers of fake news, including those with a for-profit model. One man was pretty honest in admtting that he’d manufactured the story about Hillary [Clinton] supporters being paid to go protest at Donald Trump’s events.
“He made a fake ad looking for people to go interrupt Trump campaign stops on a couple Craig’s List sites, and then he manufactured a story based off his own ad.
“That was something that made it into the natural rhetoric, and Donald Trump made some nods to that in his speecies, including one I covered.”
Lindstrom also noted that over the past 20 years brain science has made significant discoveries about human’s cognitive function. He said these add to an exploration of why “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” quoting the Paul Simon song “The Boxer.”
When Holland asked whether it was likely that news outlets could be persuaded to eliminate covering, for example, Donald Trump’s early-morning tweets, Lawler gave a fairly subtle response: one of the effects of social media is that stories can become so widespread independent of traditional media that they require journalistic coverage, and debunking, in order to assure that any semblance of truth continues to exist.
Moore drew parallels to the legal profession. “One principle that’s critical to achieving justice is for people to ask, ‘Where is the evidence?’ As lawyers, we’re trained not to just take somebody’s word but to find and look at the evidence.”
About 30 people attended the event at WMU-Cooley’s Lansing campus, drawn from a variety of places. Some were WMU-Cooley students, some members of ASPA/MICAP, and a few were members of the general public who had heard about the panel. The questions posed were thoughtful and ranged in topic from the need for viable business models for news organizations to the potential for ongoing sanctions and punishment if news was found to be false.