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Flailing Over Fake News

If you follow news and commentary in the age of Donald Trump, it’s easy to get confused.  Is fake news really news? Are conspiracy theories actually theories? Is reality television ever real?  The meaning of commonly used phrases can be hard to pin down.

Take fake news.

The word “fake” has origins in London criminal slang where, in the late 18thcentury, it meant “counterfeit.”  Later fake was used as a noun referring to “a swindle,” and as a verb meaning “to rob.” If we were faithful to these origins, when we said “fake news” we would be thinking about criminal activity.  A counterfeit, or fake, $50 bill is intentionally made to look like the real thing by a crook committing theft.  A counterfeit bill is not an error; it’s not an opinion about what a $50 bill should look like; it’s not the product of bias. It’s an intentional act of deception produced for nefarious purpose.  Some of what is called fake news fits this description.

When a Russian intelligence agent posts a made-up story about Hillary Clinton’s imminent death, he is doing something analogous to printing counterfeit currency. The story is false. The author doesn’t know anything about Hillary’s health.  It’s just an attempt to get the easily distracted, or the politically predisposed, to pass phony information to their Facebook friends in order to disrupt an election. That’s fake news, and it’s a very real problem.

Of course, President Trump doesn’t care about disinformation against his opponents.  He likes it.  He generated his own disinformation about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and relished the attention he received.  For Trump these are examples of “what people are saying,” not fake news.

If Russians circulated fabricated stories in 2016, Trump doesn’t care.  In Helsinki, he accepted Vladimir Putin’s denials.  American intelligence agencies “think it’s Russia” that meddled in the election.  “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump declared.  “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”  Later the president walked that back by making the implausible claim that when he said “would,” he meant to say “wouldn’t.”

Maybe when Trump spoke in Finland his Freudian slip was showing and he said what he actually thinks. Trump has consistently downplayed the intelligence community’s confident conclusion that the Russians took sides in the last presidential election.  He does so for a simple reason: that conclusion implies that without Russian help Trump “wouldn’t” have won.  His ego knows he “would” have.

Fake news is a real problem that Trump chooses to ignore.  That, by itself, would be a big deal; but it gets more confusing.

When Donald Trump talks about fake news, he is not talking about Russian dirty tricks.  He is talking about actual news stories, from legitimate news organizations that he happens not to like.  Fake is not false or fraudulent; it is merely derogatory.  Negative news, and negative commentary, are inevitable for any president.  It goes with the job.  Unfortunately, it is part of the job that Trump cannot tolerate.

He hates negative stories, which means he hates a great deal of what is routinely published and broadcast. Trump responds with ritual attacks on mainstream news organizations at his political rallies.  His supporters applaud and then confront reporters with jeers, hostile chants and threatening tweets.  There is method in this madness.  As Trump explained to veteran CBS reporter Lesley Stahl, “You know why I do it?  I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”

The president’s attacks on fake news are really attacks on the journalism protected by the First Amendment.  In the aftermath of the midterms, as the president’s political fortunes fell, the attacks escalated. CNN’s Jim Acosta was stripped of his White House press credentials for aggressively asking a question about a controversial immigration campaign ad.  Another CNN reporter, Abby Phillip, asked Trump if the acting attorney general was appointed to “rein in” the Mueller investigation.   The president called that “a stupid question.”  Really?  Trump repeatedly complained about Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation and then tapped an outspoken Mueller critic as his replacement.  Phillip’s question was obvious, not stupid.  Trump’s response was petulant, not presidential.

The president ignores real fake news when Russian counterfeit stories work to his advantage, and he calls it fake news whenever ordinary reporting becomes uncomfortable.  Our confusion paves his path to power.  We should push back by using political language precisely, and calling out the president when he doesn’t.


This essay was published in the Roanoke Times, November 19, 2018


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