What “Fake News” Doesn’t Mean

If there’s one thing I have to credit The Donald for, it’s his marketing savvy. Case in point: what comes to mind when you hear the term “fake news”?

At its (still recent) origin, let us remember, the term referred to articles made to look like legitimate news stories that were in fact entirely fabricated – that is, not the work of actual journalists from actual news outlets – many of which, ironically, benefitted the Trump campaign. I say “ironically” because he swiftly turned the same term on the press itself, giving it the new meaning of any reporting that he (or, by extension, whoever is speaking) doesn’t happen to like.

One journalist’s description of her recent experience covering the ego-feeding rally in Phoenix illustrates just where this semantic turnabout has led.  Speaking on the Boston-based NPR program On Point, reporter Jennifer Epstein said,

He was really riling up the crowd in a way that a lot of the people who covered him throughout the campaign, had been at the vast majority of the rallies that he’s done since 2015, have said was very unusual. He was much more forceful, and the crowd reacted by being much more boisterous and much more aggressive toward the media. There were no real threats, I would say, but there were a huge group of people, especially, I would say, maybe 40 or 50 people standing right in front of where the traveling press was sitting. There was a low fence between us, but they seemed to have chosen their place specifically so that they could taunt us from the other side of this low fence. They seemed to want to keep an eye on us and consistently throughout the speech just tell us that we were liars, tell us that we suck, use words that I’m not going to use on the radio, various finger gestures, and just aggressive, aggressive shouting; a couple people who just had that angry, that really guttural, upset yell that I think is not just about the media, it’s about a lot more. But they and the president have helped channel it that way. There was a man right in front of me with an InfoWars t-shirt; that’s sort of the world that a lot of this is being stirred up in, that really nothing that the mainstream media does could ever be acceptable to them. The closest is just that Fox is great, which is something that the president repeated: “Especially that Sean Hannity. He’s the best, isn’t he?” That whole tone just seems to be getting more forceful, and I do think journalists who cover the president, who are usually not the ones who are in harm’s way, we’re not doing something covering a war zone, covering the kind of places where journalists are generally actually in danger, do feel more concerned. I’ve definitely heard that from a couple of reporters since Tuesday, that they’re worried that there will be some kind of incident that specifically targets somebody who is perceived to cover Trump or write about Trump or just be in the “fake news,” different from … some incidents that happened at Charlottesville where somebody was aggressive toward a journalist, but that was more about just an “I don’t want to be covered” kind of thing. I think that this, there’s a real fear that there will be something more targeted. I’ve heard of people covering the logos on their bags if they have a news organization logo; one person was telling me that yesterday. I think it’s a time when the kind of journalists who live pretty mundane lives, other than being in very close proximity to the president and members of congress and the White House and all of that, that there is a little bit more of a personal concern than has typically been the case. Even, I think, in some ways maybe even during the campaign when, yeah, you would get personal threats, but they weren’t coming from the president of the United States riling up his base. He was a candidate, and he didn’t seem to be getting more and more intense in those attacks as time went on.

So here we are: an entire profession vilified to the point feeling physically threatened for it. And people wonder why his occasional appeals to unity ring hollow. When journalists, in particular, begin to fear for their safety because they are journalists, that cannot be a good sign.

There is a principle in linguistics that I’m sure holds true in marketing: repetition increases salience. With every repetition of phrases like “the fake news media”, Trump is doing something that in a way is far more dangerous than an outright attempt to suppress the freedom of the press, attempting instead to discredit it in the eyes of the public. The former would provoke massive public outcry; the latter achieves the same goal through public acquiescence.

To be sure, the erosion of public trust in news media preceded the rise of The Donald, as viewerships and readerships have increasingly gravitated to partisan niches designed to echo back to us our own sense of self-righteousness. For this, the public itself can bear a share of the blame: for coming to expect our news outlets not so much to uncover truth wherever it may lead as to tell us how right we are, not so much to inform as to entertain. Part of this is the cultural idolatry of the market, to borrow a phrase from John Paul II. Where newsmakers are, as fictional news anchor Will McAvoy put it on TV’s The Newsroom, “in the exact same business as the producers of Jersey Shore” – and thus locked in a market-driven competition for our attention, often at the expense of substance – it is because the news is seen as yet another product to consume.

That said, Trump’s main complaint appears to be that the press does in fact have a long enough attention span to report his words and actions in context rather than cherry-picking them to his advantage, as his recent complaints of not getting credit for denouncing racism, in between statements of calculated moral ambiguity, would seem to illustrate. Even if his complaints are to be taken seriously, one must wonder what sort of news coverage would satisfy him. If, as he seems to suggest, what he wants from the news media is nothing more or less than a purely flattering image of himself, if his idea of fairness is his own exemption from critique, that is a disturbing indication that he would prefer, if he could, to govern more like a Vladimir Putin or a Kim Jong Un, with news outlets largely reduced to PR and spin-doctoring. That, to bring the irony full circle, would be a “fake news media” worthy of the name.

Being forced to work within the constraints of democracy, he has opted to manipulate the already toxic political atmosphere, constantly trying to play to all sides of the country’s manifold divisions, and then, when his inconsistencies and incompetencies unfold on the public stage, denouncing the press for reporting what happens. Taking it even further, he has been working hard to discredit the press as a whole by painting it as “fake” by its very nature, which does more damage to the freedom of the press within these democratic constraints than he could by any overt attempts to restrict it.

Donald Trump did not create the social problems that propelled him to a much higher level of power than any narcissist should ever be granted, but he has certainly exacerbated and profited from them. It is the least of our duties as responsible citizens to see through his manipulative language.

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