The most effective way for the media to have refuted Donald Trump’s 24/7 accusations of “fake news” would have been to publish disinterested, factually based accounts of his presidency. The Trump record should have been set straight through logic and evidence.
So one would think after a year of disseminating fake news aimed at Donald Trump (Melania Trump was leaving the White House; Donald Trump had removed the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the West Wing; Trump planned to send troops into Mexico, etc.) that Washington and New York journalists would be especially scrupulous in their reporting to avoid substantiating one of Trump’s favorite refrains.
Instead, either blinded by real hatred or hyper-partisanship or both, much of the media has redoubled their reporting of rumor and fictions as facts—at least if they empower preconceived and useful bias against Trump. But after the year-long tit-for-tat with the president, the media has earned less public support in polls than has the president. It is the age-old nature of politicians of every stripe to exaggerate and mislead, but the duty of journalists to keep them honest—not to trump their yarns.
A Dangerous Tic
Last week, ABC News erroneously reported that Michael Flynn, in a supposed new role of cooperation with the prosecution, was prepared to testify that Trump, while still a candidate, ordered him improperly to contact (and, by inference, to collude with) Russian government officials.
For a while, the startling news sent the stock market into a fall of over 300 points. Was the purported pro-business Trump agenda shortly to be derailed by “proof” of a possible impeachable offense? A little while later, however, ABC was forced to retract that story, to suspend Brian Ross (the reporter involved), and to offer a correction that Trump actually had been president-elect at the time of the contact and completely within his elected purview to reach out to foreign governments.
Reuters, likewise eager to fuel the narrative of a colluding Trump, asserted that the Mueller investigators had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank records of Trump and his family. Again, the leaked inference was that the inquiry suddenly was coming near to hard evidence of Trump wrongdoing and was thus entering its penultimate stage. In truth, Mueller has more routinely subpoenaed the records of Trump associates, not Trump himself or his family.
In the most egregious example of peddling fake news, CNN reported that candidate Trump had once received an email entrée to unreleased Wikileaks documents—again suggesting some sort of collusion with Russian or pro-Russian interests. But that narrative was soon discredited, too. CNN failed to note that the email was sent 10 days later than it had originally reported, and instead referred to information already released into the public domain by Wikileaks.
In this same brief period, Washington Post reporter David Weigel, perhaps eager to suggest that Trump’s popularity among his base was at last waning, tweeted a sardonic captioned photo of half-empty seats at a Trump rally in Pensacola, Florida. He soon offered a retraction and noted his tweeted image wrongly showed the venue well before the actual start of the event—a fact he surely must have known.
The mainstream media has developed a dangerous tic: the more it warns about the dangers of Donald Trump deprecating the press for its fake news accounts, the more it cannot help itself in rushing out another news story about Trump that is poorly sourced and not fact-checked—and thereby substantiating his original accusation. The more it accuses Trump of exaggeration and prevarication, the more it fails to double- and triple-check its very accusations.
Lies Live On
Other unfortunate symptoms of the current epidemic of false assertions are the now familiar rounds of accusations of prejudice and bias in reporting of “events” that are soon revealed to be manufactured or staged. Next come the sometimes strange reactions to such retractions and corrections. In September, five cadets at the Air Force Academy alleged that racist threats were posted on their doors. That prompted Superintendent Lt. General Jay Silveria to lecture the student body with the stirring admonition, “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out.” Silveria became a virtue-signaling rock star when his YouTube sermon went viral—only later to learn that the cadets themselves had staged the supposed hate threats.
Not much later, Marquie Little, a seaman on a U.S. aircraft carrier, posted photos that seemed to show his bed on the George H.W. Bush covered in trash and racial slurs. “I proudly serve the Navy and this is what I’m receiving in return,” Little lamented in a post. Later, Navy officials revealed Little himself had likely concocted the harassment.
The late Michael Brown likely never uttered the refrain “Hands up, don’t shoot”—a veritable rallying cry that persists for a variety of social justice movements. The Duke lacrosse players were not, as alleged, racist rapists. A University of Virginia fraternity was not a den of jock sexual predators, as Rolling Stone reported. Nor was Lena Dunham, as she wrote, sexually traumatized by a right-wing assaulter while a student at Oberlin.
What accounts for the latest epidemic of fake news and false allegations of prejudicial behavior? Examples above have preceded Trump’s presidency, but recently the trend has been reenergized by it.
The singular media hatred of Trump’s style and agenda have galvanized wider elite resistance, in which a willingness to achieve perceived noble ends of removing Trump should justify almost any means necessary. In such a larger climate of “the Resistance,” we have witnessed a new assassination chic of threatening the president, coupled with sometimes vulgar attacks on the Trump family. A spate of supposed racial harassment fosters a narrative of renewed intolerance in the age of Trump.
Fake news also channels the resistance of universities, Hollywood, and political operatives. And just as we have witnessed efforts to sue to overturn the tally of voting machines, and to nullify the Electoral College, or witness a House vote on impeachment, talk of invoking the 25th Amendment, and calls to sue under the emoluments clause, so, too, the media has substituted its original mission of disinterested reporting to keep everyone honest for one of trying to nullify the 2016 presidential election. Journalists such as Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times and Christiane Amanpour of CNN have at least confessed that, in such trying Trump times, journalists of character can no longer easily remain merely disinterested reporters.
Second, for over a generation, postmodernism in the universities has seeped into the larger culture. The new relativism has postulated absolute facts and uncontested “truths.” do not exist as anything other than “social constructs.” Assertions of truth instead reflect the efforts of a race/class/gender-based hegemony to construct self-serving narratives. (Never mind that asserting there is no truth is, itself, an assertion of truth.) Today, the elites believe that a cadre of mostly white, male, and rich sanctions its narratives with uncontested and unearned authority, through which it further oppresses in insidious fashion the relatively powerless “Other.”
“Truths” Bigger Than Facts
Instead, “truth” consists of endless “my truth” claims versus “your truth” claims. Competing stories are then adjudicated by respective accesses to power—the ultimate arbiter of whether one particular narrative wins authority over another.
In this context, if a sailor or cadet concocts a racist attack, what great difference do rather insignificant details of narrative make in the wider scheme of social justice and equality, given the larger and historical “true” canvass of racism?
Upon the revelation that the cadets at the Air Force Academy faked their stories, Gen. Silveria seemed not especially bothered by it. Instead, he renewed his calls for increased awareness of racism at the academy—as if the fake news account could (or even should) have been true and thus an occasion for remediation: “Regardless of the circumstances under which those words were written, they were written, and that deserved to be addressed . . . You can never over-emphasize the need for a culture of dignity and respect—and those who don’t understand those concepts aren’t welcome here.” A noble sentiment to be sure, but are words written in falsity just as valid as those written in truth?
When Brian Ross constructed a falsehood, or David Weigel concocted a fantasy about poor attendance at a Trump rally, the details apparently did not matter so much as the attention to the larger “Truth”: Trump surely must have collided with the Russians, or Trump by this point certainly must have been losing crowd appeal, so it does not matter all that much how reality is conveyed.
On the one hand, larger “truths” exist of cosmic social justice; on the other, bothersome so-called “facts” are largely predicated on the prejudices and resistance of the powerful who unduly give them authenticity. In such a postmodern environment, the “truth” that Donald Trump is purportedly a reactionary sexist and bigot is what mostly matters, not the bothersome details of counter-progressive narratives or stories that in one-dimensional fashion claim to follow rules of evidence, but instead serve an illiberal reality over a liberal one. What do a few dates on the calendar matter, concerning when Michael Flynn consulted with the Russians—given the larger truth that they surely once sought to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency?
In our brave new world, fake news is the truest news. Staged oppressions serve to remind us of the real ones. The higher “good,” not the lower facts, is all that matters.