If you’ve listened to Donald Trump speak at any point over the past year and a half, you’ve likely heard him use the phrase “fake news.” It’s become one of his favorite rebuttals — so much so, in fact, that he claimed to have invented the term “fake news” in late October. Much like the man himself, this marvelously idiotic assertion is what happens when you combine boundless egotism and staggering ignorance.
Just to clear up Trump’s absurd claim, according to Merriam-Webster, the term “fake news” entered the lexicon near the end of the 19th century. If you wanted to be generous, you could argue that the Trump brand of “fake news” — which, I assume, is covered in cheap gold plating and is moments away from bankruptcy — is different; specifically, it refers to distorted media coverage designed to influence public opinion.
Unfortunately, Trump didn’t invent that either. (Donald Trump doesn’t “invent” things so much as he takes good ideas that have previously been successfully executed, covers them with a bunch of tacky shit, charges an arm and a leg for the “Trump” — read: inferior — version of them, then writes off the inevitable losses.)
This exact concept has existed for nearly thirty years under a different name: the “Propaganda Model,” which was coined in 1988 by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufactured Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Of course, none of this matters to Trump or his most die-hard supporters.
When Donald Trump cries “fake news,” he’s not doing it to call attention to poor, slanted or otherwise shoddy reporting. A normal human being might say “This news story, though factually accurate, paints me in an unflattering light, and I do not enjoy that.” The Trump version — “YOU ARE FAKE NEWS” — is the same message, just Trumpified: louder, dumber, and more useless than the original.
What Trump doesn’t understand (aside from, you know, everything else on the goddamn planet) is the damage he’s doing. By claiming stories are “fake news,” Trump is calling into question the journalistic methods and integrity of the outlets and reporters who put them together. That’s a serious problem, not just for news outlets, but public opinion as we know it.
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When Donald Trump disparages a story he doesn’t like as “fake news,” he’s not just lying, he’s undermining the very idea of truth. It would be one thing if he contested a news report and offered his perspective on events, but that’s not what he does. Instead, Trump denies everything; he contends that the story is fabricated out of whole cloth, and that reporters are willfully risking their careers and reputations solely to take potshots at him.
From a logical standpoint, Trump’s course of action would seem ill-advised. The journalists covering Trump (apart from pseudo-journalists like Mike Cernovich to whom the White House has seen fit to issue a press credential) have likely spent the better part of a decade of their lives working their asses off in order to be in a position to cover the leader of the free world. How many people would flush all that hard work down the drain just so they can embarrass Trump for the course of one news cycle?
Yet in defiance of all logic, Trump’s supporters not only accept his claims (a curious decision, given Trump’s almost-total disdain for the truth), they actually echo the cries of “fake news.” Apparently, Trump’s most ardent followers believe that if the truth is unpalatable, it is perfectly acceptable to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Trump’s assault on journalistic ethics itself hinges on a lie; namely, that journalists are not held accountable for disseminating scurrilous claims. As history has shown, they absolutely are: Brian Williams of NBC News, Juan Thompson of The Intercept, and the New York Times’ Jayson Blair are just a few notable entries on a practically endless list.
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Journalism is a largely self-policing industry, primarily because it has to be. As Walter Lippmann noted in his book Public Opinion, “If the voter cannot grasp the details of the problems of the day because he has not the time, the interest or the knowledge, he will not have a better public opinion because he is asked to express his opinion more often. He will simply be more bewildered, more bored, and more ready to follow along.”
Public Opinion was published in 1925, when newspapers were the sole source of information (NBC first began regular radio broadcasting in 1926). Even in that age, with a comparatively smaller pile of information to process, trying to stay informed was a Sisyphean task; with the advent of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s become nearly impossible. Journalists take it upon themselves to ensure that what they’re reporting is accurate and reflects the whole picture as clearly as they can understand it — that’s their end of the bargain to hold up. In return, all they ask is that the public not dismiss their reporting without a second thought just because they don’t like what they’re being told.
Ensuring accuracy is a daunting task, which is why journalistic outlets employ editors and fact-checkers to serve as a safety net and ensure the most accurate information is relayed to the public. And while the system certainly isn’t perfect, it works. The most important asset to a journalistic outlet is its reputation; without that, it’s nothing. Trump knows that — his attacks aren’t meant to defend himself. They’re meant to chip away at these outlets’ reputations until the only ones left are the ones who will carry his water.
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No force plays a more instrumental role in the continued survival of a democracy than public opinion. We tend to use legislation as an indicator of the country’s direction, but laws don’t just appear out of thin air. The people who write legislation don’t do so in a vacuum — they rely on public opinion to help shape a policy’s final form in such a way that the majority of the public will be in favor of it. The weaponization of the term “fake news” is Trump’s effort to place his finger on the scale of public opinion, to reject the state of things as they are in reality and instead attempt to reorder them however they may suit him best. Letting him do it is not only foolish, it’s incredibly irresponsible.
In Public Opinion, Lippmann also noted that “[T]he execution of the plans framed by the councils of the whole, will always fluctuate on the ill-informed and prejudiced opinion of every part.” In other words, ill- or misinformed opinion is given equal consideration to intelligent opinion, and when the number of uninformed reaches a critical mass, the legislative tides inevitably turn to accommodate those demands. And when that happens, when the loud, dumb majority overpowers the quiet, well-informed minority, we’re all screwed.