It all comes down to words.
“Words matter. Words have consequences. Facts matter. Journalists matter,” Mark Potok, the former editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Report,” told about 150 people at the Unitarian church in Montpelier Nov. 7.
His presentation, “News, ‘Fake News’ and Democracy in America,” was part of the First Wednesdays lecture series sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council and hosted by Kellogg-Hubbard Library.
Potok, who grew up in Plainfield, has spent most of his adult life fighting fake news, hate speech and racism. Labeling true facts as fake news is not what fake news is, he said in an interview prior to the speech. Rather, fake news is when “alternative facts” that are not true are believed.
“Accepting lies as truth is very dangerous for democracy,” he said.
“We’re drowning in a sea of fake news and conspiracies,” he said. “There is a scary resurgence of right-wing populism.”
Part of the problem is the internet, he said, which not only gives hate a worldwide posting but also spreads lies at rapid speed that would have been unimaginable just 15 years ago.
Potok blamed the “politicians, pundits and preachers,” who have spread lies disguised as defending the morals of the country. He was especially critical of Fox News which he said gave pundits Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck a platform to spread a variety of hate-filled conspiracy theories, most of which are both racist and anti-Semitic, such as the commonly repeated falsity, which Potok cited, that investor and philanthropist George Soros, a Hungarian-born American Jew, is the “puppet master” behind the left-wing attempt to turn America socialist and to take away our guns.
“Conspiracies are an easy way for simple minds to make their way in a complicated world,” he said.
Also part of the problem is that lies are often easier to believe than the truth, he said.
“Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,” he said, quoting 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon.
According to a 2018 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, false stories are spread six times faster than true ones and are 70 percent more likely to be reposted. “Lies travel more easily,” he said.
Fake news and hate speech are not new and always have been part of public discussion. The Spanish-American War at the close of the 19th century, for example, was fed by fake news stories.
The difference today from the past is, we have a president who lies regularly and attacks the media on a daily basis, he cautioned. “Trump is very much one of those responsible for this problem,” he said.
The Washington Post reports that (as of Friday) Trump has lied publicly 6,240 times since taking office.
A perfect example that words matter, Potok said, is to compare how President George W. Bush reacted to the 9-11 tragedy to how President Trump reacts to any alleged assault on America, whether true or not. Two days after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush told the nation that Muslims and Islam were not to blame, al-Qaeda was the problem.
“I’m not a great fan of George Bush,” he said, “but his words made a difference.” Violence against Muslims dropped significantly in 2002 in part due to Bush’s leadership, Potok added. Although a direct relationship cannot be proved, Potok said, there is considerable evidence that when President Trump’s tweets and comments target a certain group, violence and hate speech increase against the targeted group.
The only real solutions to end hate speech and correct fake news, Potok said, is to stay informed; challenge lies, hate speech, and fake news that is really fake; and to make sure that the education system teaches the truth which isn’t always the case. Some schools in the South, he said, teach students that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but rather for state’s rights and other noble causes.
Potok said he has seen hate close up. Several white supremacist websites call him a “whiny Jewish propagandist” who looks like the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. He has received numerous death threats and has needed police protection at his home in Montgomery, Alabama.
He was born in Paris in 1955, spent much of his first eight years in Europe and moved to Vermont in 1963 from Greece with his father, Andrew, author of “Ordinary Daylight, Portrait of an Artist Going Blind,” and several other books. His mother Joan remained in Greece, where she married an underwater archaeologist. He attended the New School in Plainfield and Barlow High School in New York but never graduated.
He left school when he was a sophomore to open a glass-blowing studio in Plainfield with a friend, John McCarthy. Despite no high school diploma, the University of Chicago decided a young glass blower from Vermont was a good fit.
Potok spent 20 years as a reporter at several newspapers, including USA Today, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Miami Herald. While a reporter he was a first-hand witness to some of the most dramatic events of the past half century including the Waco siege, the rise of militias, the Oklahoma City bombing, the trial of Timothy McVeigh and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In addition, he has testified before the U.S. Senate, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights and in other venues.
The eight-lecture first Wednesday series, sponsored by the Humanities Council, is being held through May 4 in nine Vermont cities including Brattleboro, Essex Junction, Manchester, Middlebury, Montpelier, Newport, Norwich, Rutland and St. Johnsbury.