Why Bogus News Stories Are So Hard to Stop

Paul Ryan was accused of imposing new, sexist dress codes in the Speaker’s Lobby. It wasn’t true.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The July 4 week was a quiet one in Washington, but the news business abhors a vacuum. Into the void sprung a perfect viral story: Female reporters were being tossed from the Speaker’s Lobby at the U.S. Capitol for being insufficiently dressy. The specific topic at hand was bare shoulders, and in an entertaining touch, one reporter ripped pages from her reporting notebook and tried to pass them off as shoulder-coverings. It didn’t work.

CBS News wrote about the rules, complaining, “These rules are far from clear cut and there are no visible signs defining them. They are also not enforced on the Senate side of the Capitol.” But the story noted that the rules are not new (though Speaker Paul Ryan had recently reminded members of their obligation to follow them), and that men are also subject to regulations, notably a requirement that they wear a tie.

Other coverage was not so restrained. Various aggregations and commentaries, to say nothing of a flotilla of tweets, whipped up anger against the “new” rules imposed by Paul Ryan, exploited the handy success of The Handmaid’s Tale to turn a metaphor, or situated the rules as emblematic of the Trump era. Veteran reporters tried to point out that the rules were not new (and were enforced when Nancy Pelosi was speaker). Others pointed out that members of Congress have been scolded too, as when Representative Bobby Rush was kicked off the floor for wearing a hoodie to honor Trayvon Martin. It made little dent. The machine was rolling.

On Thursday, Ryan rose in the House and announced that the protestors had been heard: He would move to modernize the dress code, though he took pains to point out that he had not written it in the first place.

“This is nothing new and certainly not something that I devised,” Ryan said. “At the same time, that doesn't mean that enforcement couldn't stand to be a bit modernized. So that is why we will be working with the Sergeant of Arms to ensure the enforcement of appropriate business attire is updated.”

Matt Yglesias draws a lesson from the episode:

As a fake-news strict constructionist, I think it’s important to differentiate between what might be called classic fake news—stories that are maliciously designed to be fake (There’s a child-sex ring at a pizzeria in Washington! Obama is a Muslim! etc.)—and reports that are willfully sloppy or heedless of gathering the facts because the underlying story fits with a political cause. These reports seem to fall into the latter category; let’s call it Sloppy News. (Some outlets, to their credit, corrected stories that wrongly characterized the rules as new, which is not something purveyors of bonafide fake news do.)

Yglesias edges distressingly close to an ends-justifying-the-means argument in favor of Sloppy News: It’s OK to get facts wildly wrong if the result is something that you deem positive. On Twitter, many readers were distressed to hear this argument from a journalist, even implicitly and with the disclaimer that the lesson is “uncomfortable.” Yglesias denies this is what he meant.

On the other hand, that argument is not incorrect! As my colleague McKay Coppins outlined last week, there’s a growing group of outlets and journalis—well, media personalities catering to progressives. This constellation offers everything from improbable stories (Palmer Report) to bizarre conspiracy theories (Seth Abramson) to outlets that aspire to be “the Breitbart of the left” (Shareblue). The lesson that they all seem to have taken from the 2016 election is that fake news works. That is true whether it’s the false claims that Barack Obama is not a citizen, or that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election, or that Paul Ryan has personally instituted a Gileadean dress code at the Capitol.

It’s hard to draw any encouraging lessons from this episode, except that readers can check which outlets got the story wrong, and which of those corrected their errors. It’s a dispiriting sign that, with social-media platforms aiding the distribution of sensational stories, and readers eagerly consuming them, both fake and sloppy news are likely here to stay. A lie can make it halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling on its jacket to enter the Speaker’s Lobby.