By: Mark Glennon*
Suppose you want to publish a fake news story. I mean a truly fake story — one that spreads outright falsehoods and obvious distortions. Maybe you know it’s fake or maybe you don’t care enough to check it out. Doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s a story you want to spread, so never mind the facts.
But you would never want to be accused of writing fake news. Nor would you want the publication you write for accused of that.
Here’s what you do: Write an uncritical story about a story. Just cover somebody else’s fake news without saying its fake or determining if it’s fake.
That’s what Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune and Deanna Isaacs of the Chicago Reader did. You’re probably aware of the national controversy that erupted over Seminar Day on racial civil rights at New Trier High School. I wrote about it twice, here and here, as a seminar critic.
Well, a local guy made a movie supposedly showing there was no real controversy within the community, and that the whole thing was generated by a tiny group “controlled and funded” by outside forces with a “bigger agenda.”
The movie was fake news, but Zorn (who wrote about it twice before its release) and Isaacs (writing yesterday) promoted and validated it by writing about it as if it weren’t. Isaacs’ headline yesterday was a particularly strong endorsement of the fake story: “Coming soon to a community near you: A right-wing local government conspiracy.”
The movie is full of falsehoods and distortions. A few examples:
• New Trier residents and parents supported the seminar 100 to 1, claims the movie. In fact, over 20% boycotted the day entirely. Many more who did attend (including my son) agreed with us critics that the seminar was unbalanced.
• The organized group of seminar critics (Parents of New Trier, referred to as “PONT”) was controlled and funded by outside groups with a bigger agenda, says the movie maker. Nope. There was zero — none — as those of us involved showed repeatedly.
• Among the people and groups alleged by the movie to be complicit in the conspiracy is Ted Dabrowski. His name pops up often in the movie. I know Dabrowski well and you may often have seen his articles posted here. The movie made his involvement up out of thin air. He had no Seminar Day involvement whatsoever.
• Illinois Policy, where Dabrowski works, is also among the conspirators, says the movie. Flat wrong. What’s particularly sad about this error is that the movie maker and other progressive seminar supporters missed a chance to find common ground. Illinois Policy is conservative on economic issues. On certain issues important to racial minorities, however, they are allied with progressives: They have been outspoken supporters of sentencing reform and elimination of asset forfeitures of the accused.
• The movie says Parents of New Trier is a 501(c)(3), which would mean its activities are subject to strict limitations. Just another lie. It’s not and never was.
It’ no surprise to find these errors because the movie maker, Zorn and Isaac never bothered to call or ask the primary organizer — Betsy Hart — about facts before they wrote. Nor did they call me or any other organizer to my knowledge.
Much of the “control” and “resources” that fueled PONT were attributed by the movie to conservative radio host and GOP political operative Dan Proft, who indeed covered the controversy heavily. The North Cook News, which Proft is connected to, also ran three stories on it. But that’s just media coverage, not control or resources. No errors by Proft or North Cook News were shown by the movie. In fact, North Cook News did a better job than others in some ways. It’s the only one that reported how fed up one New Trier board member got with seminar supporters and the school Superintendent.
More importantly, that exposure was vastly dwarfed by coverage by CNN, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, the National Review and others. An Investors’ Business Daily article on it by Mona Charen, a syndicated columnist, ran in dozens of other publications including the Chicago Sun-Times. My initial story alone had over 50,000 pageviews.
According to the movie, PONT basically reports up with the rest of the conspiring groups to ALEC. One fellow PONT organizer had this response when I talked to her about the movie: “What’s ALEC?”
As for other connections alleged in the movie between Parents of New Trier and groups like Illinois Policy, The Policy Circle and Wirepoints (we’re party to it, too, says the movie), sure there’s overlapping agreement on many issues and on a few members. Conservatives, moderates, free marketeers and libertarians do that. So do folks on the left. That does not a conspiracy make.
Seminar Day was supposedly about fostering honest discussion about race. Thanks for nothing, Eric Zorn and Deanna Isaacs.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.