In a World of ‘Fake News,’ Whom Can We Trust?

May 17, 2017

As I contemplated the topic for this month’s WWEMA blog, I was struggling with what “news” I should report to the WWEMA membership in our weekly Member Bulletin. It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the truth and the “fake news” that bombards us daily through social media and even respected news outlets and the trade press. It seems like partisanship has become the order of the day with opposing groups vociferously stating their positions (with or without any “true facts”), leading even reporters on the radio news channel I listen to on my way to and from work to ask, “What and whom can we believe?”

I hearken back to the “old days,” when my parents and sisters and I would gather around our one black-and-white TV each night for the evening news. We were riveted by the events of the day, including the Vietnam War and the hippie “flower power” movement, the women’s liberation movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. and the quest for civil rights—all being shared by respected news anchors like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley and Barbara Walters. These were people who spoke with authority and integrity, backed up by “fact checkers” who reviewed story details for accuracy and truth. We were able to converse with our parents about why a particular issue or social movement was unfolding, and in having to answer our barrage of questions, my parents had to become educated on the issues as well. While they may not have been without some bias, they allowed us to question and form our own opinions on the news and events of the day. There was actually conversation and discussion and the opportunity to share opposing views, all of which helped to educate us about issues so much bigger than we were. There was a general understanding that the “fake news” was relegated to the tabloids found in the supermarket checkout aisles.

Fast-forward 40-plus years, and when my husband and I now speak to our 20-something children about the news of the day, the conversation usually begins with a statement about “fake news” and that you can’t believe everything you read or see on social media, and we end up spending precious little time in conversations about real news and issues. How sad to realize that each of us (should we chose) must now become our own “fact checker” for almost everything we hear. Living in Washington, D.C., makes this even harder, as events and issues move at the speed of Twitter, and in a 24/7 news world, there is little—if any—time for true investigative analysis. While not all news is “fake news”, it is becoming increasingly clear that social media sites and media outlets are being used to promote certain positions or personal/political beliefs rather than simply reporting the “facts.”

A recent case in point: On March 16, 2017, the Office of Management and Budget released President Trump’s America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again – Budget Priorities for FY-18. While just a blueprint, the document highlighted specific reductions in government agency funding, including a 31% decrease for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and elimination of very specific programs and initiatives with dollar values. What the document did not include was additional details that were released in a March 21, 2017, memo by the acting chief financial officer at EPA providing guidance on how the Trump Administration could achieve the budget cuts proposed in the FY-18 budget. In particular, the cover memo referenced evaluating “how the Agency is organized and the geographic locations and spaces we occupy.” While many of us continued to focus on the programmatic cuts, we missed a key cut referenced as “rent avoidance” for several EPA regional and headquarters offices, including Regions 1, 5 and 9. So why was this not clearly stated in the original budget release? And more importantly, what does this reference mean? Is it the administration’s intent to consolidate the staff in these three regions to a single building within each region? Move them to a less expensive location within the region? Consolidate their functions with other regions? Or eliminate them entirely? And why Regions 1, 5 and 9—historically some of the agency’s strongest regions? If it weren’t for the oversight and staff in Region 5 and graduate students at Virginia Tech who were willing to risk their reputations, careers and livelihood, the tragedy in Flint, Mich., would have stretched out even longer with more untoward consequences to human health. Where are the justification, the reasoning and—more importantly—the conversation around selecting these three regions? Why not Regions 2, 4 and 6?

And so we find ourselves in today’s world either like Don Quixote continuously tilting at windmills or, worse yet, circling the wagons around our families and loved ones, keeping our heads low and under the radar, and doing everything in our power to protect those things and people that matter most to us, eschewing the concerns of the rest of society. The latter approach to me poses the greatest danger, because when we only look inward, we miss the imperceptible shifts in our moral compass and risk waking up one day to find that the very fabric of our civil society has begun to fray and unravel. So for now, I plan to continue to keep my head up, keep my ears to all sides of the news and do my best to fact-check, because I know the truth is out there somewhere.