Monday, January 2, 2017

Legerdemain, anti-news, and neckties

By Dan Altuz (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 4.0 (
licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
An old magician's trick -- "look closely, nothing up my sleeve" -- threatens to alter our perception of what constitutes real news. Unless we wise up, and fast.

In stage parlance, the word was legerdemain. Derived from a French expression for "sleight of hand," it describes a magic trick, or some other deceit. Screenwriters and journalists don't use the word much anymore. 

But, in an era of false news, dusting it off would be a fine idea.

Because we're looking at a year or more of childish sniping and Tweets whose true purpose is to distract editors and too-lean reporting staffs from digging at harder stories. Legerdemain isn't limited to the next occupants of the White House. In some cases, PR people have performed their own version of "here's an oversized check to charity" to obscure the less-than-charitable dealings of their clients.

And it works, much of the time. 

It works because the U.S. electorate (or a subset thereof) chose a reality TV version of a CEO as their leader. It works because the same electorate responded like dogs to a bone whenever someone with a microphone said "Benghazi" or "emails." And it works when the phrase "fake news" is quickly co-opted to infer fabrications from any political pundit.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal's editor said it wouldn't label the President-elect's falsehoods or misleading claims as "lies." Mr. Baker is essentially telling his readers: "You decide." Which gave rise to a sad assortment of neckties on Fox News. That recipe worked out well, didn't it?

But it stops here. And now.

We must think of legerdemain in today's terms. It's no longer "fake news." It's no longer a Trumpish bellow across Twitter. We need to view it as anti-news: fable-telling whose sole intent is to mislead viewers and readers from facts and authentic news.

So it's up to us -- you and I -- to draw the line. This far, and no farther. No anti-news. No more legerdemain. Challenge falsehoods. Be vigilant for the inaccurate tweet that distracts us from the author's true intentions.

And pay close attention to the man or woman behind the curtain.