Inauguration Day begins a new chapter in the story of America every four years, and the story of the republic thus never grows stale. This time, however, the fresh page is marred with fake and bizarre news before a single accurate word is written. Russian hacking reports, secret dossiers and news of what happens when a president tries to lead from behind overwhelm the senses and challenge the ability to make heads or tails of it all.
Pity the historian. Forming a coherent narrative from the jumble of events wrought by the human animal is never simple or easy. Gleaning the factual from the seeming true but actually false confounds the chroniclers of the current era. There’s no app yet for making sense of the tangled web that deceives.
The weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day is always a chaotic time in Washington, where chaos is catnip, and the confusion was confounded this time by the intelligence agencies’ report that the Russians fiddled with the American election campaign with their hacking of Hillary Clinton’s emails. The shoe dropped with the disclosure of a dossier, written by a British intelligence operative, with imaginative and lurid stories from an anonymous gossip that Donald Trump had been a man behaving badly. This story reeked of something phony to most authentic editors, both liberal and conservative, but easy marks at the left-wing website BuzzFeed and CNN News held their noses and ran with it.
Absent reliable collaboration, the publishing of the dossier violated fundamental journalism ethics. Vagabond internet news sites — here today, gone next week — might feel no need to bother with such ethics, but a cable-news network should. In full view of millions of TV viewers at a press conference, Mr. Trump took matters into his own hands and disdained CNN as illegitimate, and banished the network to the company of the purveyors of fake news. When readers come across news accounts without a verifiable source, they should do the same.
There’s also news that sounds fake but isn’t. The description fits the report, incredible in its particulars, that the Obama administration reckoned that the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East could force Syrian President Bashar Assad to negotiate his exit from the scene. The revelation came in an audio tape of a conversation Secretary of State John Kerry had with Syrian figures at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. There were the expected denials that Mr. Kerry was suggesting that President Obama actively encourage the expansion of ISIS as a means of expelling Mr. Assad.
In the event, the scheme didn’t work. The Russians entered the war on the side of the Syrian regime and saved Mr. Assad by bombing ISIS. Rather than becoming the instrument of ending the Syrian civil war, ISIS seized portions of Iraq and dispatched terrorists to Europe. As Mr. Obama vacates his office and Mr. Assad returns to his, the new president should make a mental note: Waiting for evil to defeat evil is a strategy too clever by half.
“The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities,’” George Orwell wrote, “but that it attacks the concept of objective truth.” That Orwell observation is so 20th century. All it takes now to render the pages of history indecipherable is to scribble fake news in the margins, the more bizarre the better.