Donald Trump is Fake News

Image from Reuters/Carlo Allegri

This morning, in our latest episode of Lashing Out Irrationally, Donald Trump decided the most presidential thing he could do in a given moment was to send out a tweet whining about The New York Times. The impetus for his complaint was unclear. The substance of his criticism was also unclear.

The tweet was sandwiched between an all-caps plea to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, and another belligerent tweet attacking the Washington judge (/hero) who ruled, “unh-uh, no you didn’t” on Trump’s ill-conceived immigration order. It was a classy affair all the way around.

“Fake news” has become Trump’s new go-to dismissal for anything he doesn’t like. New York Times? Fake news. CNN? Fake news. BuzzFeed? Fake news. Democrats? Fake news. Small hands? Fake news.

There’s no substance to support his assertions. No facts, figures or well-reasoned opinions intended to persuade. Trump doesn’t even attempt to evidence his claims. He just expects to be able to say these things and have the rest of us agree with him simply because he’s the one saying it.

But Donald, *Bubby,* that’s not going to work with us. We’re not that dim. You’re a buck-naked emperor, and we all know it.

As someone with a rhetoric and debate background who works with reporters every day, I continue to marvel at the bizarre inaccuracy and intellectual dishonesty of Trump’s use of “fake news” and “liberal media bias” claims.

Fake News

Donald, you keep using this phrase, but I do not think it means what you think it means.

He keeps using “fake news” to scorn credible outlets that write stories he doesn’t like. But these aren’t examples of fake news. *Actual* fake news involves stories that are wholly fabricated to drive ideological or financial interests. These aren’t stories posted in mainstream outlets like The New York Times or CNN. They’re stories in made-up publications that pop-up merely for the sake of hosting the fake news.

And wouldn’t you know it, but an actual study has been done on fake news and the 2016 election by the smart folks at Stanford. They found that fake news stories benefiting Trump were shared 30 million times, nearly 4X more than those fake news stories benefiting Hillary Clinton.

Imagine that.

Trump knows all of this, but still can’t help but rely on the sweeping dismissals of any inconvenient truth he stumbles across. And boy are there a lot of them.

The Gray Lady

Image courtesy of ABC News

For starters, NYT isn’t some fringe rag that’s produced in a basement compound. It’s a paper of record that employs thousands of people who actually went to school and learned the principles of ethical reporting. Like other top outlets around the globe, NYT has rigorous editorial standards, a high bar for sources and a commitment to giving all sides an opportunity to comment before running a story. Stories are almost always vetted by multiple people before running. Like every other top 50 outlet, NYT also has an incentive toward checks and balances in reporting, as “inaccuracy” is seen as a cardinal sin in journalism, something that can level an outlet’s reputation and endanger future access to major newsmakers.

Beyond structure and mechanics, NYT is at the forefront of the data journalism movement, which is designed to foreground data in reporting instead of opinion. Their impetus is toward more evidence-based reporting, not less. That’s the opposite of fake news.

Like everyone else, the NYT makes mistakes. Sometimes they mishandle a scoop, or report a story incorrectly. That’s why they are transparent about their errors: they issue corrections designed to “set the record straight” in the spirit of truthfulness.

The important thing is that outlets like NYT, CNN, USA Today, Washington Post and yes, even the more conservative Wall Street Journal, are all built to be biased toward accuracy and honesty. The president possesses no such governor.

Liberal Media Bias

Anyone who knows a few reporters can tell you what a pain in the ass they are as a group. And, no, it’s not because they write fake news or work nefariously toward some underhanded political agenda. It’s because they are so dogged in their obsession with accuracy, truthfulness and the sanctity of these values in their reporting. Tell a reporter s/he’s a jerk and they’ll shrug you off, but tell a reporter that they got their facts wrong and they’ll rake your eyeballs out.

That doesn’t mean that every reporter is honest, that there aren’t those who corrupt and pervert the power they’re given to report and be heard. But in my years of working with reporters (often in an oppositional nature, by the way), I’ve found the vast majority of them to be true believers in honesty and the righteousness of what they do. They wouldn’t sell their integrity for anything in the world.

Why does that matter? Because even if many of them are liberal, their liberalism isn’t their foremost trait. For most reporters, dogmatic adherence to the ethical practices of their craft come first. Writing an inaccurate story with a liberal skew would be a sin. Writing an accurate story that benefits conservatives would be seen as just doing their job.

Is the media skewed against Trump and the broader movement his orbit has created? Definitely. But in many cases, their trigger isn’t the politics, it’s his intellectual dishonesty and complete disregard for communicative norms. His willingness to manipulate facts, to level wildly sweeping criticisms without any substance, and his confrontational response to anyone who questions him, are all accelerants to media hostility.

Does some buried liberal sentiment leak into some stories some of the time. Sure. But it doesn’t supersede accurate reporting, and it doesn’t make the coverage dishonest or inaccurate. It certainly doesn’t render a body of work from an entire outlet irrelevant and worthy of wholesale dismissal.

We’ve somehow conflated the word “bias” with the concept of “wrong.” Biases are what make us individuals with unique points of view. It’s part of the diversity of perspective that should inspire rich exchanges. Yes, reporters have biases. Some healthy, some unhealthy, just like the rest of us. You need to determine that on a case-by-case basis, not through a sweeping dismissal that doesn’t account for the particulars.

Yes, I see media bias against Trump. I notice lines in stories every day that betray exasperation from reporters (and editors). And you know what? I’m proud of them for it, because they are absolutely right.

This man is hostile to truth. Hostile to difference. Hostile to the fair exchange of ideas. And generally hostile to the norms of civic society (decency, respect, openness, etc.). President Trump has enough power and control as it is. He doesn’t get to decide for us what’s true and isn’t. What voices we can and can’t hear. What’s a fact and what’s a lie. He doesn’t get to control the narrative. We’re not going to let ourselves be tricked into giving up our right to be informed.

In times like this, media’s job is to shine a light in the dark corners of society. Corners don’t get any darker than the shadows that follow Trump around.

Trump can roar his terrible roar, gnash his terrible teeth, roll his terrible eyes and show his terrible claws, but reporters aren’t going to blink. They’re going to keep doing their jobs. God love them for that.