Trump declares war on the media

The week we learned how ‘alternative facts’ work

President Donald Trump is no fan of the mainstream media. He made that clear during his campaign and the months leading up to his inauguration. But after his first week in office, it’s also become clear that the Fourth Estate still has some fight left in it.

There were two notable shifts this week in the media’s approach to covering Trump: more vigorous fact checking of his statements in live coverage and the adoption of tougher headline language when Trump or his staff strayed from the facts.

After months of taking shots from Trump the candidate and president-elect, designed to delegitimize the mainstream media and cast doubt on its motives, several outlets dropped the gloves in their first dealings with President Trump.

Consider these headlines:

“With false claims, Trump attacks media on turnout and intelligence rift” — New York Times, Jan. 21
“Trump repeats lie about popular vote in meeting with lawmakers” — New York Times, Jan. 24
“In a swirl of ‘untruths’ and ‘falsehoods,’ calling a lie a lie” — New York Times, Jan. 25
“Trump just gave a remarkable new interview. Here’s a tally of all his lies” — Washington Post, Jan. 26
“President Trump’s first seven days of false claims, inaccurate statements and exaggerations” — Washington Post, Jan. 27

Where they once pulled verbal punches by using words like “unsubstantiated claims,” or “falsehoods,” media outlets now are using the words “false” and “lie” more frequently in an effort to speak plainly.

In 35 years in the news business, I can’t remember a week when I saw the “L-word” used so much. It’s the kind of finger-pointing accusation most publications shy away from. It’s a line they hesitate to draw because it requires more than confidence or conviction, it has to be backed up. It has to be bulletproof.

There also seemed to be a new emphasis on efforts to verify what the president and his staff say. Where suspect assertions might once have been presented with attribution, there appeared to be additional investment in real-time fact checking.

Trump’s meeting at CIA headquarters on Jan. 21 may prove to be a tipping point. In wide-ranging comments in front of the wall that memorializes fallen intelligence agents, Trump disputed the reported size of the crowds at his inauguration the day before. He suggested the media was low-balling the number to make him look bad, despite visual evidence that suggested his estimates were incorrect.

He also said the media was responsible for his rift with the intelligence agencies (apparently forgetting an earlier tweet where he took them to task).

“I have a running war with the media,” he said. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

In a Washington Post story that was posted shortly after the event, reporters picked apart his assertions.

The story had three bylines and certainly involved more people at the Post offices. It was almost as if they’d adopted campaign “war room” tactics to present a quick response to Trump’s comments. (Or maybe they were just taking advantage of a browser extension they built to fact-check Trump’s tweets.)

The New York Times took a similar approach in a story with two bylines; contributions from four more reporters also were credited. That’s a lot of manpower for one story. It’s certainly more than most publications could afford.

Spicer’s remarks begin 1 hour, 33 minutes into the video. For some reason, the White House didn’t edit out the dead space before he entered the room.

As the day wore on, both outlets updated their stories to include remarks from new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who backed up Trump’s false statements with some of his own.

On Sunday morning, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that Spicer was citing “alternative facts,” introducing a new concept to the lexicon to accompany “post-truth.”

“Alternative facts aren’t facts, they are falsehoods,” Todd responded.

To cap off the week, chief White House strategist Steve Bannon on Thursday called the media “the opposition party” and suggested it should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”

“Mr. Bannon’s remarks added to the growing acrimony between the press and a president who made attacks on the media a rallying point of his election campaign.” — New York Times, Jan. 26

Bannon, Conway and Spicer have jobs to do in the Trump administration. They’re there to advise and put the best face on whatever happens in the White House.

They’ll get ample opportunity to explain their positions, but they’ll also be asked to support every claim they make — from the president on down. They’re in the spotlight now and the intensity has been turned up another notch.

Facts matter. Words matter. And the media, which has been struggling to survive over the last decade, still has some fight left.