The most disturbing media trend in 2017 is the concerted — and largely successful — effort by President Trump and his White House to delegitimize the nation’s traditional news outlets through combatively dubbing them “fake news.”
While that blatant attempt to undermine the credibility of what were formerly trusted, credible sources of information remains a deeply troubling development in contemporary media-government relations, it never could have worked had the phrase not been repeated ad infinitum by reporters in the field, editors in their corner offices, pundits in their thick makeup and many everyday people on social media
It’s time to wake up: We’re all being trolled by the president. His campaign to undermine the press corps is proving more effective than any defense we could offer, because uttering any rebuttal simply plays into his Machiavellian scheme to recast the press corps as “the enemy,” as his former counsel Steve Bannon has dubbed the nation’s traditional journalists.
By using the very language that’s intended to delegitimize real sources of information, defenders of a free press are actually losing the war (even if they feel they’re winning most every battle on Twitter, cable or in conversations with like-minded folks).
By using the very language that’s intended to delegitimize real sources of information, defenders of a free press are actually losing the war.
For example, take NPR (and I’ve filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its local affiliates in my 11 years as a Washington reporter), which has dubbed itself, “Fact-based.” CNN ran with its new “Facts First” slogan this year. And even the "Washington Post," which in 2017 adopted the gloomy slogan "Democracy dies in darkness," recently sent out a holiday email blast that read “This season, support real journalism.”
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But journalism doesn’t exist without facts (or else it is generally known as "fiction"). And the alternative to “real journalism” is either mythology or propaganda.
Meanwhile, James O’Keefe, the hidden-camera-wielding conservative at Project Veritas, and Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com have also latched on to the president's narrative, though in opposition to the nation’s top news outlets' perspectives. They’ve declared their biased, unproven, salacious and misleading coverage “real news.” The Trump campaign is even still selling a “Fight the Fake News” bumper sticker on its website.
It does make sense that the alt-right has latched on to the “fake news” narrative: They have an agenda to peddle to their seemingly ever-growing number of adherents. And slowly and methodically delegitimizing honest (though occasionally mistake-making) journalists, helps them drive the narrative home after years of conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin and Sean Hannity already making the same case.
This tit-for-tat over who is real and who is fake news between the nation’s proven news outlets and these fringe sites is like two kindergarteners engaged in a fierce playground debate over who is a doo-doo head: “You are.” “No you are.” “No you are!”
This tit-for-tat over who is real and who is fake news is like two kindergarteners engaged in a fierce playground debate over who is a doo-doo head.
No one wins a debate that’s so base, uninformed and childish and, by stooping to even engage in it, the nation’s traditional news outlets are giving the masses a reason to get a second opinion.
In adopting the language of the president and his fringe media allies, the traditional press corps risks alienating those conservative and Independent voters who truly don’t know who to trust anymore. They’re not going to be drawn to your side or read great journalism just because it’s labeled “real” — if anything, that code word now gives people pause because it’s dripping with politics.
Once the president labeled the press “fake,” any time the media declares the opposite, they’re no longer seen as defending a free, honest press but as entering the political realm as political actors who are directly opposing the president and his feisty base.
Plus, the entire debate over “Real” and “Fake” news is a smokescreen: While we discuss which news outlets to trust or decry, the president was working behind the scenes to remake the judiciary in the far right wing’s image, to gut Obamacare from within and to rush through a massive tax cut that independent analysts say tilts towards the wealthiest Americans (like the president and his cabinet).
Avoid buying into the false equivalency being peddled by the president and the alt-right between fake news and real news. There’s only news.
The fringe right has grown up and is more sophisticated than ever — but the left, independents and middle-of-the-road Republicans haven’t kept up. While they still perpetually feel the urge to play defense, they’ve been duped into being a mouthpiece for the movement that they’ve seemingly taken a blood oath to oppose.
There is only one solution: Avoid buying into the false equivalency being peddled by the president and the alt-right between fake news and real news. There’s only news. Sometimes reporters get things wrong, but most of us don’t view ourselves as enemies of the White House. We’re allies of an informed public.
And instead of playing into the dangerous propaganda that’s aimed at undermining journalists, just point out to your friends and family the great research and reporting from your favorite, trusted publications. It may not be as sexy as engaging in a Twitter or Facebook fight with the alt-right, but it may lower your blood pressure and even make you smile more in 2018.
Matt Laslo is a reporter who has written for NPR, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and VICE News, among others. He's also an adjunct professor teaching regularly at The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Boston University and The University of Maryland.