What are the Unintended Consequences of Trump’s ‘Fake News’ War?

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 22: U.S. President Donald Trump talks with journalists after signing tax reform legislation into law in the Oval Office December 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump praised Republican leaders in Congress for all their work on the biggest tax overhaul in decades. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Let’s begin with a fact. Not an alternative fact. Just a plain fact. There has never been a president quite like Donald Trump.

Trump is a president with a different message and a different way of getting his message across. And it doesn’t involve the essentially liberal, mainstream media.

Trump’s team knew they wouldn’t have a sympathetic media so they went it alone.

Now, let’s say from the outset that Trump does have a point. For years, the mainstream media have essentially been liberal/progressive in their political bent.

They tend to be dismissive of the kind of politics and the kind of policies that Donald Trump represents.

So Trump made a calculation: he would try not only to sidetrack the mainstream media but he would, at every opportunity, seek to discredit it.

It is the reason why ‘fake news’ has become his most oft-repeated mantra – and not only in the campaign but since he entered the White House too.

Major Garrett, the White House correspondent for CBS News, believes Trump is simply exploiting a disillusionment with the traditional media that set in long before he became president.

“The mainstream media has had a credibility problem for some time now. Politicians and ordinary people have ceased to believe it in the same way that they used to,” he explains.

“Donald Trump is driving that through more powerfully than any other president in recent American history.”

Trump’s weapon of choice is Twitter.

It has become my morning wake-up call in Washington. You can rely on it. Pretty much every day at around 7am the Trump stream of consciousness starts flowing.

He uses Twitter to rage, to vent his obsessions, to insult people, to hint at policy announcements, foreign and domestic, that he may or may not follow through with.

Make no mistake, there is method in the madness. He and his team are clever in the way they use social media.

Trump uses it to test an idea, to distract from an issue that is not playing well for him and to set his own narrative for the news day ahead.

Broadly speaking, it works.

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But it only works because the media allow it to. Only a relatively small number of Americans know anything about Twitter let alone use it on a regular basis.

Therefore, what Trump is actually doing using his Twitter feed to reach journalists who he knows will relay the Trumpian thought for the day to their readers or viewers.

And the more inflammatory the thought, the greater the certainty it will dominate the day’s news agenda. So Trump is using the news media he so despises and the media is indulging a president they have contempt for.

It is odd and it is not normal.

And the press must take some blame here: by allowing themselves to be complicit in this media madness they are letting Trump off the hook.

By lapping up his Twitter pronouncements, they do not expose the President of the United States to any meaningful cross examination. It is an exchange consisting of bad tempered contempt and criticism.

The Twitter feed is replacing the press conference and it is bad for journalism and certainly bad for democracy.

Trump is by no means the first President to have an adversarial relationship with the media. The difference with Trump is that he seems not to believe in the fundamental role a free press plays in a democracy and he actually threatens that role by spending a fair proportion of his time working to delegitimise the media.

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Richard Nixon, pictured in 1988, also battled with the press - but Trump is something new

It’s one thing to despise the press. There are many reasons why Trump would want to do that. It has become unmerciful in its criticism of him.

But it is quite another thing to work actively to undermine it to the extent that it is no longer believed.

President Obama had an often tricky relationship with the media, but in his final news conference he said: “I have enjoyed working with all of you. That does not, of course, mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed, but that’s the point of this relationship.

“You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be sceptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions.

“You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here, and you have done that.”

And George W Bush was equally understanding.

He said: “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold power to account. Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”

The President's attacks on the media have convinced many of his supporters

Now compare those quotes to any number of Trump’s tweets on this issue. For instance, this one: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

Jeff Flake, a Republican senator, pointed out in a speech from the Senate floor that it was Stalin who first used the phrase “enemy of the people”. And there is a serious point to be made here.

The President’s ‘fake news’ onslaught on the media is for domestic consumption. But it is also heard around the world and it will only comfort autocrats and dictators who do not tolerate any free speech, criticism or independent media.

They will point to the United States, the supposed bulwark of democracy, and say: “Journalists are bad people, untruthful and unreliable. It’s fake news. The President says so.” How convenient for despots that is.

It is not theoretical either. Mr Flake made the point that Syrian President Bashar al Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report as a forgery. “We are living in a fake news era,” he said.

The president of the Philippines has also complained of being “demonised” by fake news and a state official in Myanmar recently said: “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted minority in that country.

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And a president who accuses others, on a daily basis, of dissembling, probably shouldn’t be a habitual purveyor of untruths himself. But that is Trump.

Elizabeth Drew, a formidable political journalist in her sixth decade of president-watching, told me: “Trump lies far more than any president ever. He lies all the time, every day.

“You’ve seen the statistics, they’re stunning. So the job of the press is to check him on these things and say well, you know, actually rivers don’t run up and down, they run sideways, whatever it is.

“So that’s the press doing its job and it’s highly inconvenient for him.”

All presidents lie at sometime or another – I am sure of it – but Trump is of a different order of mendacity. And it eats away at democracy.

As Jeff Flake said: “The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign.

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“They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behaviour on our democracy cannot be overstated.”

There are clear signs that Trump’s attacks on the media are playing well with his base support who have taken to holding aloft ‘fake news’ placards in front of the cameras at Trump rallies.

Many is the time I have been interviewing Trump supporters around the country and they precede any comments they make with the accusation that we are all ‘fake news’ anyway. So it resonates.

And it is possible to see a scenario where if Trump’s presidency starts to look like it is doomed, if his poll numbers plummet further and he finds it even more difficult to get legislation through, he will have a ready-made scapegoat… the media.

But the irony in all this is that Trump is, broadly speaking, good for business.

Ratings are up across the news networks and 24-hour channels. Trump in the White House is compelling telly and fills more column inches than any recent president. And conversely, Trump adores the attention. He revels in being centre stage. He craves the media he constantly berates.

Donald Trump

And there is another point to make here: the ‘fake news’ controversy may actually turn out to be a watershed moment for journalism – and in a good way.

In an era where truth is at a premium and not that easy to come by, it becomes inherently more valuable.

Trustworthy, authoritative, credible reporting will be more in demand than ever before.

An entire generation that is subscribing to get music, films and entertainment online could well make the decision to pay for news they can trust. ‘Fake news’ may lead to more people paying for the real news. It could happen .

But that would be an unintended consequence of an almost unprecedented assault on the media by a president.

It is dangerous, it is unhealthy, it is wrong.

The American people deserve better, yes from its media, but certainly from the man they elected as the leader of the Free World.