Sometimes it's had to know whether to laugh or cry. At Donald Trump's latest rally he took aim at what he (often correctly) calls fake news, before going on to talk about approval polls showing “different facts” to those in the actual polls; a “Swedish incident” he had made up – provoking much mirth on Twitter – and using a quote from Thomas Jefferson about this very thing, fake news, that Trump appeared to pinch from the Washington Post (who he has regularly lambasted as “fake media”) and singularly failed to understand.
It’s true that when president, under scurrilous attack by the media, Thomas Jefferson did write, answering a question about “the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted,” that “[n]othing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” But the fuller context is that Jefferson was talking about contemporary newspapers, those of 1807, which had become blatant scandal sheets, unashamedly partisan, and a world away from those he had envisioned in arguing for the freedom of the press decades earlier. “As for what is not true you will always find abundance in the newspapers,” he told a friend of the 1806 newspapers teeming both with valid criticism of his Administration and made-up stories of the corruption of the Jefferson White House.
It as as Mark Twain was to say much later, that not to read a newspaper is to be uninformed, but to read a newspaper at all is to be misinformed.
So how are we to proceed? As it happens, if Trump had read Jefferson’s letter entire instead of just the section of it he ripped from a Washington newspaper, he may have himself found an answer. Here is the letter entire:
'To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, 'by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood.
'Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.
'General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on. I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.
'Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The 2d would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The 3d & 4th should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.'
In other words, we would be better served if news organisations would follow as a simple policy the edict of the good detective: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
UPDATE: Trump has now claimed his fake news about a terror attack in Sweden – a claim that baffled the current Swedish Prime Minister and promoted a former one to ask what Trump is smoking – was based on his mis-viewing of a Fox News story. “It ... seems to be new that a US president bases commentary of foreign issues in Fox News coverage.”