If you were going to create a Top 10 list of high-quality journalism institutions in our world today, surely The Economist would be in there somewhere.
Now let's put a different spin on that. If you were going to create a list of prestigious publications that do not deserve the label "Fake News," I would imagine that The Economist would make that list.
So what are you supposed to do when you hit the spew-your-coffee moment in this new piece that was published in that elite magazine over in England, the feature that ran under the headline:
Faith and higher education can intersect in many different ways
An ever-shifting relationship between campus and church
The piece opens with a discussion of a recent address at Oxford University by Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, on the subject of academic and intellectual freedom.
Then there is this piece of analysis, which contains the spew-worthy error mentioned earlier. Wait for it.
To some American conservatives, this emphasis on free-ranging inquiry, rather than the axioms of faith, will only confirm what they suspected: that Notre Dame and other historically Catholic colleges are drifting far from their Christian roots and are on the road to becoming virtually identical to secular places of learning. But the real situation is more interesting. In the ecology of American higher education, there are many different relationships with religion. There are zealously Christian establishments like Liberty University in Tennessee, which may be the largest non-profit college in the world, with 15,000 students at its Lynchburg campus and another 110,000 engaged in online learning. First-year students take Bible classes and there is a “code of honour” that bars extra-marital sex. At the other extreme, there are state universities which have never had any particular connection with religion. There are also mighty institutions like Harvard and Princeton, where the training of ministers was originally the main activity but theology is now a minority interest.
Lots to think about in that passage. But, wait, where is Liberty University located?
I live in East Tennessee and, the last time I checked, the massive university founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell is still located in Lynchburg, a community in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in VIRGINIA.
Now, that is clearly an error and editors at The Economist need to publish a correction, post haste.
That error does not cancel out the rest of the article. However, you know that some readers -- conservative Christians, perhaps -- will see that mistake and then roll their eyes while making a "There They Go Again" expression. Some may even try to pin the "Fake News" label on this story, saying it's a pack of biased, liberal, You Know What.
I think that's an improper used of the "Fake News" label, but you know that some people are going to insist on using the term in that manner.
Meanwhile, America's Tweeter In Chief continues to toss that loaded label around with great abandon, using a baseball bat where a flyswatter would do just fine. You saw the latest example of his rhetoric, of course. This is from The Hill, but the story ran everywhere:
President Trump ... declared that the nation's "biggest enemy is the Fake News," particularly NBC and CNN for their coverage of the North Korea summit.
"So funny to watch the Fake News, especially NBC and CNN," Trump tweeted.
"They are fighting hard to downplay the deal with North Korea. 500 days ago they would have 'begged' for this deal-looked like war would break out. Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!"
So what does the term "Fake News" mean when Trump uses it?
I continue to hear form readers who are concerned about where this whole Fake News thing is headed and, truth be told, I am really worried about it myself. Several months ago, I wrote an "On Religion" column about this trend, linked to that Pope Francis blast about "Snake News." Here was the overture:
Maybe it's author Michael "Fire and Fury" Wolff hinting that President Donald Trump is having an affair with United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Maybe it's the waves of lies from Russian hackers that have flooded major social-media sites, causing global confusion and chaos.
Maybe it's rumors that Pope Francis has a brain tumor or that he's preparing for a Third Vatican Council, one sure to split the Church of Rome.
Whatever "fake news" is, the pope's World Communications Day message made it clear that he believes Satan is behind it all, whether journalists and mass-media leaders know it or not.
So what is Fake News?
That's a hard question to answer, with all of the shouting that's going on right now. In that column, I argued that the crucial thing to know is how ordinary Americans are using and misusing that term, when talking about the news and opinion that they consume. Thus, I wrote:
Yes, it's rumors, acidic political fairy tales and outright hoaxes. But can the fake-news label be pinned on screwed-up, mistake-plagued news about current events? What about biased, advocacy journalism -- whether in talk-TV shouting matches or elite newspaper headlines? Are politicos accurate whenever they yell, "fake news," when facing information they don't like and want to see suppressed?
Here is an example that troubles me, based on conversations I've had with loyal newsreaders here in East Tennessee.
OK, let's say that there is a demonstration on a state university campus in favor of a liberal political or cultural cause, an annual event that fits with a newspaper's editorial-page worldview. The march and/or sit in draws several dozen participants and a circle of counter demonstrators.
No question about it: It's a real event and deserves coverage. This is a valid news story. The story plays on A1 with a huge photograph. In other words, this is the most important news of the day.
So then you have other events in this Bible Belt city that draw hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. These events focus on topics that are in the news, ranging from church safety to human trafficking, from the splintering of the American family to the state of America's abortion laws.
In most cases, these stories receive zero coverage or they are buried inside the newspaper.
The news consumers involved in these kinds of events tend to get mad about this coverage, or lack thereof, especially when it is compared with the A1 placement of the events linked to a large news corporation's favorite causes.
Often these citizens cancel their newspaper subscriptions and -- wait for it -- complain about Fake News. That's what they call it when what appear to be small events get big coverage and big events get small coverage. Is that a proper use of the term?
So let's pause and try to create an updated typology of how some/many news consumers are using and abusing this term. Thus, Fake News is when major media or social-media platforms publish:
(1) Rumors and outright hoaxes.
(2) Flawed, messed up reports that include mistakes and factual errors.
(3) Advocacy journalism that is clearly biased for or against specific groups or points of view in public debates. This may be linked to balance in these reports, in terms of who is quoted and who is not, or even the visibility of these stories. See "Kellerism."
(4) Opinion features that, under normal circumstances, would never be seen as news.
(5) Stories in which most of the information, or the most crucial information, is drawn from anonymous sources (often in ways that violate traditional journalism standards). This makes it hard for readers to gauge the validity or motivations of these sources.
(6) News reports that a specific politician or group wants voters to ignore.
Yes, the Trump Twitter definition is there at No. 6. However, there have been times when the president has used the same term to describe reports that would fit under each of the other definitions. Other politicos on left and right have learned how to play that game.
The bottom line: This creates an acidic fog in American public discourse.
Once again, let me stress that this Fake News typology (which I keep revising) focuses on ways the this label is being used -- like it or not -- in public discourse.
Now, the Liberty University error in The Economist is simply a mistake. Right? Or is it easier to misplace some academic institutions than others?
Just asking (because lots of readers ask questions like that).
MAIN IMAGE: Liberty University press photo of the campus, as viewed from the air.