If the left and right are ever going to agree on ground rules for stopping the spread of fake news, both sides will have to wear gloves and nose clips to endure the rot and stench of some awful Facebook "news"--while we focus on eliminating the worst falsehoods and fabrications.
That's what I was thinking after my phone conversation Friday with State Sen. Tim Neville (R-Littleton).
I thought it was obvious Neville had spread fake news by posting an article on Facebook with the headline, "California Democrats Legalize Child Prostitution."
But after talking to Neville about it, he convinced me that the prostitution post wasn't fake news, from his ultra-conservative perspective, (even though it was fake news from where I sit), and I was wrong for thinking he would see it otherwise.
"I get what you're saying," Neville told me. "And I know the title of the story might have been sensationalist. However, what they did with the law creates an opportunity for child prostitution without any kind of [criminal] enforcement. So, I'm comfortable leaving it up. And if you feel it might have been a little bit sensationalist as far as the headline, I mean, Jason, I like your writing, and I read it, but sensationalism is part of your game...
I looked again at Snopes, which I'd relied on as my fact checker, and realized that it had rated the California-prostitution item as "mostly false," not "false," for exactly the reason Neville cited.
WHAT'S TRUE: A California law passed in 2016 provides that minors involved in prostitution be treated as victims rather than criminals.
WHAT'S FALSE: It is still illegal for Californians to hire prostitutes (child or otherwise), and sex traffickers will still face consequences if they are caught prostituting children.
"If children are engaging in prostitution, they can't even be prosecuted as juveniles," said Neville. "If I post the article, I expect people to read the article, make their own decisions, and go from there. I just think it's a bad policy."
If Neville had signed the Fake News Pledge for elected officials, it would have been within the guidelines for him not to remove the California-prostitution item anyway, because it wasn't rated 100 percent "false" by Snopes, which the pledge uses, along with Factcheck.org, Politifact, and "respected" news outlets, as arbiters of fakeness.
Not so, however, with two other fake-news posts I found on Neville's Facebook page. Both items, discussed in my recent investigation of fake news on state lawmakers' websites, were found to be false by Factcheck.org.
In one case, Neville posted an Daily Caller item headlined, "Satellites: Earth Is Nearly in Its 21st Year Without Global Warming." The linked article cites satellite data allegedly showing a "prolonged hiatus" in global warming.
"Global warming alarmists have a real problem," wrote Neville on Facebook. "Satellite data tells the real story."
"There are a lot of sources on that," Neville told me, adding that different temperature reporting procedures around the world throw off the "baseline" for comparisons.
He's right that there are other sources, but I could not find a third-party arbiter that finds them credible.
In another case that I cite in my investigation, Neville posted a fake-news item in August headlined, "Obama Begins Push for New National Retirement System." The linked article, based on a hearing way back in 2010, claimed the Obama Administration had begun an effort "to nationalize the nation's pension system and to eliminate private retirement accounts including IRA's and 401k plans." But years ago, when the accusation was first hurled by the conservative National Seniors Council, Factcheck.org showed it to be false.
If Neville were a signer of the Fake News Pledge, it would be within the guidelines for him to post both the global warming and retirement items, but he'd have to explain why he did so, since his posts were found to be false by an independent arbiters listed in the pledge.
"I don't put a lot of faith in Snopes," Neville told me. "I used to rely on Snopes, and too often I would find that Snopes was incorrect."
Is there any group of arbiters that the left and right could agree on? I've asked conservatives on Twitter and elsewhere to edit the Fake News Pledge to make it acceptable to them. None has responded.
"My point is, people have a responsibility [to think about information]," said Neville. "They read something. They can challenge it. They can argue."
Neville said people should get news from a variety of sources.
"I don't expect people to act and react on something I might post any more than I would act or react on something they might post," he said. "We're not experts. We put information out there. A lot of times, it reflects opinion. Sometimes a news source might let you down. I think they've all kind of let us down over the last few years, the last year in particular."
"To me, each individual has to be the arbiter," he continued. "And my hope is, those who are involved in journalism, it's their profession, I hope they take it seriously. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. That's what we have to work with."
Asked if he would delete something from Facebook, if he thought it was wrong, based on his own preferred sources, whatever they are, Neville said, "Yes, you take a look at it. You try to get more information out. And you try to follow up with something else, which is what you would do."
"Call me and let me know," he said.