In Donald Trump’s World, “Fake News” Means Anything Negative About Him
For Donald Trump and his supporters, "Fake News" means any news that doesn't shower enough praise on him.
From the earliest days of his campaign, President Trump has repeatedly attacked reporters and news networks for coverage that he deemed to be insufficiently obsequious to him, his campaign, and his Administration. These attacks have taken various forms from the banal to the far more serious. During many of his campaign speeches, for example, he would make the false claim that networks such as CNN had “turned off” their cameras even as that same speech was being aired live, virtually without interruption most of the time, on all three of the major cable news outlets. He repeatedly referred to the media in general and individual reporters specifically in a derogatory manner and encouraged the crowd to turn on the reporters and camera crews covering the speech. More than once, this resulted in the pro-Trump crowd shouting vile epithets at the reporters to the point that reporters and their crews would have to be escorted out of the venue by local law enforcement or Secret Service for their own safety. On several occasions, Trump banned reporters from publications that were critical of him such as The Des Moines Register and The Washington Post, from receiving press passes to cover events and speeches and then go on to accuse them of trying to censor his message to the voters because they weren’t there to cover it. On another occasion, he had Univision anchor Jorge Ramos physically removed from a press conference when he asked a question about Trump’s position on immigration. Later during the campaign, Trump suggested that the nation strengthen its libel laws in ways that would clearly violate the First Amendment. This rhetoric continued throughout Trump’s campaign right up until Election Day in 2016.
After he took office, Trump continued his continued and took on a more sinister tone. Less than a month after taking office, for example, Trump called the news media the “enemy of the people” for the first time, a phrase he returned to several times over the past year. Over the summer, one of his close advisers suggested that the media should be criminally charged for publishing leaked information even when that information isn’t classified. During a campaign rally style speech in Arizona in August, Trump upped his rhetoric by referring to members of the media as “sick people” who “don’t like our country,” and are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” In October, he took to Twitter to threaten NBC with unspecified government action including pulling their broadcast license notwithstanding the fact that broadcast licenses are issued to individual stations, not networks, and that the FCC has no similar licensing requirement for cable networks such as MSNBC. Most recently, the President directed his private attorneys to send a “cease and desist” letter to the author and publisher of a book critical of the Trump White House and once again brought up the possibility of strengthening the nation’s libel laws in response to the negative coverage his Administration was receiving.
Throughout it all, the President has frequently referred to so-called “fake news,” a label that he applies quite regularly to anything having to do with the Russia investigation among other matters. That label has been picked up by his supporters and sycophants, who are quick to label any news item they don’t like as “Fake News.” Today, the President, perhaps accidentally, revealed what he means by “Fake News,” and it’s about what you would expect:
On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump sent out a tweet bashing the media. Nothing new there.
But, this tweet was different: Trump unintentionally revealed the false premise on which his relentless calls of “fake news” is based.
“The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?”
Put aside the authoritarian — but ultimately empty — threat about taking away the media’s “credentials,” and focus instead on this sentence: “91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake).”
Trump, I think, is referring to a 2017 study by the conservative Media Research Center which claimed that 91% of the nightly news coverage on the president was negative.
But, that’s not (really) the point here. The point can be summed up in these two words from Trump: “negative (Fake).”
To Trump, those words mean the same thing. Negative news coverage is fake news. Fake news is negative news coverage.
This is, of course, not true. Negative news coverage — or, seen more accurately through the Trump lens, media coverage that he feels is not sufficiently favorable to him — is not, by definition, fake. Fake news is made-up news. It’s not based in traditional reporting values like facts and sourcing. It’s not “news” at all.
Trump either doesn’t understand or ignores the difference between a story he doesn’t like and one that is not true. He conflates the two for his own political purposes — knowing his base hates the media and is more than ready to believe that journalists are willing to make up stories just to make Trump look bad.
Time and time again, Trump’s claims about “fake news” have been debunked. What he calls fake news isn’t fake at all. It’s true — he just doesn’t like to read about it because it paints him as fallible, and he hates that.
Here’s how Factcheck.org, a nonpartisan fact-checking operation at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, described
Trump’s approach to “fake news” in a detailed debunking of the idea headlined “Trump’s Phony ‘Fake News’ Claims”:
President Donald Trump often dismisses news stories or media outlets that he doesn’t like as “fake news.” How often?
A database of his public remarks contains 320 references last year to “fake news.”
Usually, it’s a general complaint about news coverage — such as his Christmas Eve tweet: “The Fake News refuses to talk about how Big and how Strong our BASE is.”
But there are times, too, when he has labeled accurate news reporting as “fake news” or spread false information himself, while at the same time accusing the media of being “fake” or “dishonest.”
Here’s the problem: Trump’s attacks on the media — as flawed and dishonest as they are — are working. More than 4 in 10 people in a Gallup poll earlier this year could not name a single objective news source. Almost eight in 10 (77%) in a Monmouth University poll released last month said TV and print media report “fake news.” That’s a 14-point bump from the number of people who said the same last year.
Here’s the Trump Tweet in question:
The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
Originally, of course, “Fake News” was a term that was meant to apply to false news stories that were being spread via social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. While many of the examples of this type of “news” were merely badly executed examples of click-hungry outlets trying to mimic the style of satirical publications such as The Onion, Babylon Bee, and Duffel Blog, many of the false reports were clearly meant to spread false information regarding political candidates or politicians. Indeed, as we’ve subsequently learned, at least some of this type of “news” can now be traced to accounts linked to Russian authorities who were engaged in a conscious effort to spread propaganda related to the 2016 Presidential race or other political matters that were a major part of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the Presidential election. At some point along the way, though, the meaning of “Fake News” changed from referring to obviously false news to a way for Trump and his supporters to attack any news organization or reporter who was critical of him or his Administration. With this Tweet, the President has basically acknowledged something we already knew, namely that in Donald Trump’s world “Fake News” is anything that is not sufficiently obsequious to him. This isn’t an attitude that’s appropriate for the leader of a free nation, but it fits right in with the style of an authoritarian leader who wants to control and discredit negative news coverage.
All of this is entirely consistent, of course, with the disdain that this President has shown for press freedom and for the job that journalists do. While previous Presidents have often clashed with reporters, none of them, not even Richard Nixon whose paranoia regarding the media became well-known after the release of the tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, have treated the media in the manner that this President and his Administration do. Reporters often complained, rightfully, about the lack of transparency from previous Administration, or about things such as the actions that the Obama Administration took in investigating reporters who reporter information that had been leaked to them by White House insiders. Compared to this White House, though, those previous Administrations were remarkably open to the press and at least made an effort to maintain good relationships with reporters. All of that has been thrown out the window by the Trump Administration, which has been openly hostile to reporters and news organizations with the exception, of course of Fox News Channel, which appears to be the President’s chief source of information on a daily basis.
As I’ve said before, Trump’s anti-media rhetoric has crossed a line and there’s only one right side to be on:
These are the words of an authoritarian dictator, not the words of the leader of a republic with a Constitution where freedom of speech and of the press are not only enshrined in our Constitution but are also the very lifeblood of American democracy. The fact that it has been reported that the Trump Administration had multiple contacts with Russia during the campaign is most certainly real news, especially in light of what we already know about Russian hacking and apparent efforts to influence the election itself apparently in Trump’s favor. At the very least, these allegations need to be investigated both by law enforcement and by Congress in a fair and efficient manner. If it weren’t for someone reporting this, we wouldn’t know about it. Just like if it weren’t for reporters we wouldn’t have known about Watergate, or Iran-Contra, or the reports that Hillary Clinton was taking the extraordinary step of using a private email server while Secretary of State. All of these stories were broken first by what the so-called President is calling the “fake” news media.” This is why I agree with Thomas Jefferson. Given the choice between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I will choose the latter. In reality, of course, we don’t want to live in either a world where there is no government or one where there are no newspapers (i.e., news media). They are both essential to the survival of a free society, but as long as we have government, we need a free and independent media that isn’t being intimidated by a wannabe dictator in the White House. There are two sides in this war between Trump and the media, but only one of them is the right side.
Today, Trump revealed what is really at the core of his attacks on the press. He is a petty, vindictive man with a thin skin and is unable to withstand even the slightest degree of criticism. Someone like this doesn’t belong in politics and certainly doesn’t belong being President. Nonetheless, for better or worse, here we are. I suppose there’s some value in Trump finally revealing what his attacks on the media are all about, but the likelihood that it will amount to a change in public opinion on the part of his supporters, most of whom have been wallowing in the conservative myths about “biased media” for decades, is pretty much zero. It’s pathetic, but it’s sadly the truth.