Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist
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I failed when it came to fake news

Democracy can't function when falsehood is promulgated as truth

It was a couple of years ago. I got an email from a friend, someone I liked and respected. Mine was one of about 15 names listed as CC’s.

The email was about President Obama. More specifically, it was an email about him appearing on the well-respected news show “Meet the Press” in September of 2008, two months before he was elected president, and talking about America’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

“There are a lot of people in the world to whom the American flag is a symbol of oppression,” the email quoted Obama as saying. “And the anthem itself conveys a war-like message. You know, the bombs bursting in air and all. It should be swapped for something less parochial and less bellicose. I like the song ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.’ If that were our anthem, then I might salute it.”

I studied the email which contained what appeared to be an actual transcript of Obama’s “Meet the Press” interview. It looked authentic. At the same time, I had my doubts. As someone who follows the news closely, I had never heard of this. So I went to Snopes, a website that tracks down items circulated on the Internet, to verify if they are accurate. Snopes reported that the Obama National Anthem story was bogus and that no such interview ever took place.

The creation and promotion of this fabrication did not surprise me, however. It clearly was intended to feed doubts that Obama was an American citizen and that he believed in American exceptionalism, a belief that America is a unique country with a distinct mission in the world.

I emailed the friend who had sent this item out, to give him a heads up that what he had sent out regarding Obama and the national anthem was false. I even included the link to the Snopes site and suggested that he let all of the others who he had cc’d know it was false.

He was not inclined to do that, he replied, because “it was something Obama would have said.” That exchange bothered me as an American raised on the values of truth and fair play.

It also bothered me as a former journalist and current community leader committed to accuracy and a belief that information shared in any forum should be honest and truthful. That my friend was unwilling to pull back and correct his email really bothered me. It bothers me to this day.

But I shamefully said and did nothing further. And I am sure people who received that email forwarded the fake National Anthem story to others who then forwarded it to others, spreading this false tale.

Today, we are hearing a lot about “fake news.” Fake news is real. I saw it take hold in the situation described above.

Though it might take some time, I do believe that mainstream journalism will find a way to respond — to counter this trend of falsehoods gaining legitimacy — and in the process find a new relevance and identity. We are moving into an era where we need media sources we can trust, free of bias and dedicated to reporting honest and accurate information, more than ever.

In the interim, I must come to grips with the reality that I failed in the above instance by going about my business rather than leaning on my friend to pull back the Obama National Anthem story. In fact, I could’ve just cc’d everyone on the original email directly to let them know the story was fake but I didn’t want to embarrass my friend.

In thinking back on all this I realize that not only did I fail by not intervening, but we all fail when we allow falsehoods to be promoted — on the Internet or elsewhere. And we must develop the skills to distinguish between the expression of legitimate opinions we disagree with and outright falsehoods.

Who would’ve thought we’d each have to play this role — to be guardians of objective truths? Yet, this now is a challenge facing all of us, one that is crucial to maintaining the integrity of our free speech rights which are so integral to our democracy.

As Benjamin Franklin so memorably said at the time of America’s founding, in response to being asked whether he and the other Founding Fathers were creating a monarchy or a republic, it would be a republic, “if you can keep it.”

In this era of fake news and virtually everyone having the tools to manufacture and distribute falsehoods posing as facts if they want, we must fight this alarming trend if we want to keep our republic. Faith and trust in objective truth are crucial to maintaining a democracy.

I regret that I failed. Next time, I will do better. Especially now that I realize how much is at stake.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.
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