Published in COMtalk Spring 2017.

By Tom Fiedler (’71)

The Fight Against Fake News

In the COM student lounge, a wall plaque displays these words from the College’s mission statement: “The Boston University College of Communication is dedicated to the proposition that the free flow of ideas and accurate information is vital to the development and improvement of democratic societies” (my emphases).

Many of us here—faculty and students—have been agonizing recently about the emergence of “fake news,” false information packaged to deceive the public into thinking it was produced by professionals with respect for truth. In its current political context, fake news is synonymous with propaganda, because it is intended to sow ignorance or confusion for a political aim.

In February 2017, after we had wrapped up our articles for this issue of COMtalk, President Donald J. Trump held a press conference in which he claimed the media were producing fake news about his presidential campaign and administration. “I’ve never seen more dishonest media than, frankly, the political media,” he said.

I hate the fact that fake news is created for insidious purposes, usually money or political gain. I also detest that our president wantonly accuses journalists of producing fake news because they challenge his ideas. Journalists do make mistakes, and good journalists correct them. But falsely accusing journalists of producing fake news is as insidious as falsely accusing someone of bigotry and racism.

Our democracy relies on the right of the people to have unrestricted access to accurate information. Our mission is to produce and deliver it. Fake news and those who generate it are the enemy, and not just of COM, but also of our democracy.

The issue of fake news, and the way it collides with COM’s mission, is on my mind as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of our founding as a stand-alone school. It was in 1947 that BU President Daniel L. Marsh created the School of Public Relations by gathering existing University programs that shared aspects of mass communication. From the business school, he pulled the departments of journalism and advertising; from the school of liberal arts, he picked up the radio and “motion pictures” programs.

To Marsh, all these forms of communication fell under an umbrella of public relations, which had a broader connotation than it does today. In his Founders’ Day Address celebrating the establishment of the School, Marsh contended that any form of communication relating to the public was, by definition, public relations. He also believed that the emerging field was worthy of academic recognition: This new School would create the world’s first degree in public relations. In his lofty vision for the program, public relations wouldn’t be “press agency,” “propaganda” or “some high-powered attempt to substitute fiction for fact in public estimation,” he said. Rather, it would become “a vocation which should be entered only by persons who have pursued a course of study leading to a professional degree, thus making it comparable with the professions of the ministry, law, medicine and teaching.”

As we know, the School’s name evolved over the years, becoming the College of Communication in 1984. But the founding pillars remain in place: those of journalism, advertising, public relations, film, radio, television and the scholarly study of mediated communication. The principles enunciated in 1947, and later incorporated into the mission statement, also remain. A graduate of this School, said Marsh, “must be honest, honest beyond legal requirements…incapable of lying and treachery, of deceit and trickery, of duplicity and chicanery.”

Journalism graduates, he continued, would have “correct norms and standards of truth and honor” and know “the extreme importance of strict accuracy.” They would “defend the freedom of the press as the palladium of our liberties,” and “conduct the press as to make it worthy of guaranteed freedom.”

Those principles are critically important today, when such Orwellian terms as “fake news” and “post-truth information” have joined the lexicon. Much has changed in the media over these 70 years, and surely more change lies ahead. What must not change is our commitment to “truth and honor,” as Marsh prescribed. Our democracy relies on the right of the people to have unrestricted access to accurate information. Our mission is to produce and deliver it. Fake news and those who generate it are the enemy, and not just of COM, but also of our democracy.