HOW FAKE NEWS BECAME A FAKE IDEA
In more than four decades as a journalist, I’ve seen a steady stream of politicians push back against the news media. But nothing like Donald Trump.
First, there was “3D Trump”–the Donald simply calling reporters “dishonest,” “disgusting” or “disgraceful,” alternating these labels with charges of “fake news.” Next, there was Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s now iconic declaration of “alternative facts,” when confronted with the administration’s inflated claims about the crowd size at the president’s inauguration. Then, days after President Trump spoke of his “running war” with the media, his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon tagged the mainstream media as “the opposition party,” admonishing it to “keep its mouth shut.” And then, there was this amazing tweet from @realdonaldtrump:
This was a Trump too far.
A lot of people agreed. Republican Sen. John McCain kicked off the outrage in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free–and many times adversarial – press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time – that’s how dictators get started.” McCain acknowledged that dancing with the press is rarely fun: “I hate the press. I hate you especially,” the Republican senator joked to Todd. “But the fact is, we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital.”
None of this counter-punching has deterred Trump from his wholesale attacks on the media–save for his friends at Fox. And I think we know why: It seems like sound politics. Dissing the news media, which has awful approval ratings among his Republican base voters, has proved as popular as Trump’s exhortations to “lock up Crooked Hillary.” His pre-emptive strikes are designed to keep his supporters in campaign-rally mode, as well as delegitimize the news media and keep it off-balance–an attempt to deflect attention from the escalating controversies raised by his own actions. Besides, a frustrated President Trump doesn’t seem to have transitioned well from his “Apprentice” days, when he was able to steer most story lines about himself.
At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) gathering, Trump expounded on his frustration: “They [the media] say that we can’t criticize their dishonest coverage because of the First Amendment…I love the First Amendment. Nobody loves it better than me. Who uses it more than I do? But the First Amendment gives it to all of us–gives it to you, gives it to me, gives it to all Americans–the right to speak our minds freely. It gives you the right, and me the right, to criticize fake news, and criticize it strongly.”
Exactly right, Mr. President–almost.
True, nobody has benefitted more from the First Amendment than you. And nobody is claiming that you don’t have the right to criticize news coverage. What we’re saying we also have the right to criticize you when we think you’re wrong, or when we think your behavior is not befitting of the highest office in the land. It doesn’t matter which one of us is right–that’s what the First Amendment means.
Of course, the press beating up on the presidency–and vice versa–is as old as the nation itself, and George Washington didn’t like it any more than Donald Trump does. (Washington initially supported the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish, or assist in, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government.”) I wonder if Trump would endorse such restrictions today. “The fakes news doesn’t tell the truth,” Trump told the crowd of CPACers. “It doesn’t represent the people, it never will represent the people and we’re going to do something about it.”
Whether “doing something about it” means anything more than trying to exclude certain news outlets from press briefings (as Press Secretary Sean Spicer did in late February), we’ll just have to see. What I do know is that journalists are pushing back. Despite what the Tweeter-in-chief claims, we do represent the interests of the American people, and sometimes the news media is the public’s only effective means of ferreting out the truth from facile charlatans.
So now, I’m going to exercise my First Amendment rights and do a little more counterpunching.
Deconstructing ‘Dishonest Media’
What can we say about reporters, or as Trump once called us, “among the most dishonest human beings on earth?” Well, after many years of close encounters with mainstream journalists, I can tell you that they may be many things–relentless, obnoxious, competitive, and yes, thin-skinned. But not dishonest. Most professional reporters I know are hard-working, generally underpaid, and principled–committed to shining a bright light on fraud, abuses of power, hypocrisy, and harmful acts against the public, whether inflicted by business, government, or individuals. Quite the opposite of being dishonest, journalists spend an extraordinary amount of their time patrolling the world for dishonesty. Even people we want to stand out as heroes, like Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, too often turn out to be hypocrites, lying unrepentantly until their lies simply overwhelm them.
Do not confuse mainstream news with other media, like bloggers, cable news and radio talk-show hosts, social media posts, hashtags, Tweets and trending topics. The news media do not have “an agenda.” They do make mistakes, sometimes rushing to publish stories before properly confirming the facts. But Trump’s trash-Tweeting, “FAKE NEWS Media knowingly doesn’t tell the truth,” is total crap.
Fake news has become a fake idea
In the heat of last year’s presidential campaign, “fake news” really was a thing. Internet trolls sprang up everywhere, concocting defamatory stories about the candidates that became treacherous because they fit the conventional format of news, spreading with little scrutiny because people wanted them to be true.
But now, thanks in part to our president, it seems that any news people don’t like can be labeled, FAKE NEWS! News that’s fake is information that’s been fabricated, usually with intent to manipulate or deceive. Calling something “fake news” has become a convenient way to blow off criticism. And I get it: Nobody likes to be called out for their mistakes, especially in public, any more than they like their boss dressing them down in front of co-workers with “constructive criticism.”
Just give me the facts, ma’am
When Kelly Ann Conway launched the words “alternative facts,” they instantly went viral, becoming a sly joke for many a liberal pundit. Of course, you can’t simply create alternative facts because you don’t want to accept the facts that exist. Facts are facts; opinions are opinions.
That said, there are alternative facts–just not the way Conway used them. There are alternative facts in the sense that you can say a glass is half full or half empty or the weather is partly sunny or partly cloudy. Both statements are facts, but people choose to focus on one rather than the other, depending on what argument they’re trying to win. The problem arises when people consider only the facts that support what they want to believe. This is what often accounts for division between Red and Blue states, the Coasts and the Rust Belt, conservatives and liberals: radically different value systems that shape people’s views of what the “facts” really are. That makes consensus–even rational argument–difficult, when we can’t even agree on what the facts are.
So where do we go from here?
Well, the news media has already started pushing back. For instance, in response to Trump’s “News Media is the enemy of the American people” tweet, #NotTheEnemy began trending on Twitter, with people sharing stories about journalists who had dedicated their lives to – and, in some instances, paid the ultimate price for– covering the news.
But the push-back between the new media and the president needs to be broadened into a push-back-and-forth between the media and the public–both Red and Blue. The media needs to make sure that the parameters of the debate are not dictated by people like Steve Bannon, claiming that reporters are part of a “corporatist, globalist media” adamantly opposed Trump’s economic nationalist agenda. (Never mind that Fox News is part of Rupert Murdoch’s corporatist, globalist empire, right, Mr. Bannon?)
The mainstream new media also needs to recognize that Trump, Bannon & Co. get away with such hypocrisy because many white, working class, non-urban citizens genuinely feel that the media ignores their interests–and worse, looks down at them. Trump supporters love it when he “gives it” to the media, which they perceive as elitist and judgmental of their lifestyles, faith and values. They feel left behind–that their country has been taken away from them, and they don’t see that lament represented in the mainstream media.
The news media, then, does need to rethink how it covers the country, reframing what diversity, populism and identity politics mean in 21st century America. The goal is to exchange and understand, not lecture, one another. At the same time, we must recognize that democracy is defined by the First Amendment, the protector of free expression, whether in the media or in houses of religious faith.
At the end of his CPAC rant, Steve Bannon warned that the battle between the news media and the president is going to get worse, because, as Trump continues to press his agenda, the news media is going to continue to fight: “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken. Every day, it is going to be a fight.”
Yes, it is going to be a fight every day, Mr. Bannon, because it’s not your country to take back. It belongs to all of us.