It starts slowly. Dubious media outlets begin to report crazy stories, making outlandish accusations about prominent leaders, and most people ignore them. Only the wingnuts will actually believe this tripe, we tell ourselves, so we can brush it off without worry. But matters quickly escalate. The stories make their way to mainstream news sources, and soon significant segments of the populace buy into the nonsense they put forth. While truth-tellers attempt to expose the lies, their efforts ultimately fail — the fake news causes the nation to make a grave mistake.

The above paragraph doesn’t describe the 2016 election cycle; rather, these events transpired in the early 2000s. In their push for war with Iraq, President Bush and his administration alleged the country’s president, Saddam Hussein, had aided al-Qaeda in carrying out the 9/11 attacks and that he was working to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Although both of these assertions were bullshit — the secular Hussein and the hard-line Islamist al-Qaeda were natural enemies, while UN probes and Pentagon reports cast significant doubts on the existence of WMDs — that didn’t stop The New York Times, The Washington Post and other renowned media outlets from uncritically regurgitating them. As the result, many Americans swallowed these lies, and the country went to war; 500,000 deaths and $2 trillion later, we’re still dealing with the consequences of this fake news outbreak.

Fake news — clickbait-y fabrications that pop up on sketchy media sites, posing as real news and racking up page views — has attracted a lot of attention this election cycle. Tech-savvy ne’er-do-wells, both in the U.S. and Europe, have launched virtual empires predicated on sensationalist news stories that appeal to people’s worst impulses. Facebook and Google have taken considerable heat for helping disseminate this misinformation, and to their credit, they’ve each taken the first steps toward beating back the fake news onslaught.

Facebook and Google don’t make the news, though. They can try denying a platform to fake news sites, but that won’t necessarily keep people from believing them. Americans’ faith in the media has dropped to a historic low, and that trend must reverse if we want to solve the fake news problem. For that to happen, we need to address the other kind of fake news — stories in venerated mainstream media outlets, presented cleanly, that have no basis in reality.

To be clear, I don’t mean the outlandish hoaxes — fallacious statements about CNN broadcasting porn or buses carrying paid protesters — that prominent media organizations aggregate and promote without checking their accuracy. These stories, while harmful, obscure the more mendacious issue: reporting that relies on faulty evidence to make outright false claims, thereby gradually eroding trust in the media. Coverage of the Iraq War may be the most egregious example of this phenomenon, but it’s not the only one.

Mainstream fake news can take the form of articulate yet insidious bigotry. In 1994, The New Republic gave cover to racial science — literally — when it fostered a “debate” about The Bell Curve, a book of shoddy pseudo-science that argued for genetic differences in IQ between people of different races. This normalized the book’s ideas, causing many other outlets to accept its basic premises as fact. Nowadays, as far too many white Americans think intelligence gaps do exist, the country still feels the effects of TNR’s actions.

Mainstream fake news can also come as omission — outlets may simply ignore the nasty events that go on, to the detriment of their audience. During the early-to mid-aughts, as the housing bubble inflated and some observers began to worry, the financial press abdicated its duty. It chose to write glossy features about prominent banks and firms that belied their shady lending practices. These deceitful articles told consumers they had nothing to worry about, leaving them unprepared for the market crash and subsequent recession. Had business journalists done their job, the public pressure might have been enough to avert the meltdown.

And mainstream fake news can occur out of simple credulity and confirmation bias. If a story comes along that an editor wants to be true, they may pick up on it, no matter how shaky it might be. A couple of weeks ago, The Post wrote about supposed “Russian propaganda” infiltrating the United States, smearing legitimate news outlets as “useful idiots” for Vladimir Putin’s regime and leaning heavily on a disreputable source. The Post still stands by the story, even though several of the organizations it names as Russian allies have denounced it. The damage, however, might already be done — an allegation of treason won’t soon dissipate.

The readers of the supposedly traitorous websites, like the black Americans defamed by TNR and the former homeowners ruined by the financial crisis, won’t be too fond of the media institutions that propagate these stories. They’ll have less faith in the media, potentially turning to fake news instead. If the press doesn’t cease these self-destructive behaviors, the process will continue, no matter what actions Facebook or Google take. If Americans don’t think they can trust the mainstream media, that media needs to make itself trustworthy again.

Last week, a trusted fake newsman was asked for his thoughts on fake news, and whether it had caused Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election. But instead of laying the blame on “stories that were sent from a Macedonian teenager to grandmothers’ email accounts,” former Daily Show host Jon Stewart instead criticized “news organizations that lost their credibility and authority because they were not careful enough about introducing toxic and poisoned information.”To effectively counter the habitually lying president-elect, the media must run a tight ship, which means ending the shoddy reporting that wrecks its credibility. Only by getting rid of mainstream fake news can we stem the tide of other fake news.

Ryan Romano is a sophomore journalism major. He can be reached at