Can we maintain a governable society without a shared objective reality? That’s the fundamental question raised each time we hear people, most particularly the current President of the United States, decry the so-called spread of “fake news.”
We first started hearing the term regularly during the last presidential campaign, originally in reference to intentionally false news stories that circulated primarily on social media, most of which originated from fake news sites. These are sites that simply troll for clicks to feed online advertising, using garish and misleading headlines and stories often invented from whole cloth.
But Donald Trump, first as a candidate and then as president, has turned the concept on its head, using the term to target regular and legitimate news media that publish unfavorable news stories about his administration.
Such epithets from the president are unseemly, but Trump’s reckless language is potentially far more damaging to the country and its 240-year experiment in self-government than he likely realizes. Calling out an actual fake news site is perfectly legitimate. But equating organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or CNN, as “fake news” is not only false, it’s damaging to the country.
It is self-evident that an informed electorate is key to the maintenance of a democratic form of government. And since most Americans aren’t privy to the behind-the-scenes deliberations of government officials, we rely on the established news media to provide us at least a glimpse into that world and to provide accountability when government officials fail to live up to their promises.
Yet how is accountability possible when any critical examination of government is simply dismissed as “fake news?” The president’s defenders would no doubt argue that because regular news organizations sometimes issue inaccurate reports, they can be legitimately described as fake news. But that reflects a misunderstanding of how reputable media operate.
First of all, every news organization makes errors— sometimes egregious ones. That comes with the territory. What separates fake news from reputable news is accountability within the organization and to the public. Fake news sites or newspapers like the now defunct tabloid Weekly World News can publish anything and no one is ever held accountable. No one ever issues a correction or a retraction, because no one involved with fake news cares that they are reporting false information.
When a reputable news organization publishes a story that proves to be inaccurate, or simply poorly sourced, the organization itself corrects the record, and often makes internal changes to the organization to prevent such errors in the future. Trump’s current favorite target, CNN, is a case in point. The cable news channel recently took heat for a story on Trump’s ties with Russia. No one has demonstrated that the story was false— only that it failed to meet the reporting standards of CNN.
Yet it was CNN that first raised concerns with the story and quickly retracted it. It followed up with the resignations of three reporters and editors involved with the story.
That President Trump chose to trumpet CNN’s actions as evidence of their mendacity demonstrates yet again the president’s lack of understanding of basic concepts. CNN’s actions demonstrated that the cable news network is, in fact, credible, because it is willing to subject itself to the same self-scrutiny and public disclosure that it insists upon from government or others on whom it reports.
Contrast that with the current White House communications team, which regularly issues false and misleading information. It was communications director Sean Spicer who famously claimed that President Trump attracted “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” despite clear photographic evidence that his inauguration crowd was dwarfed by President Obama’s first inauguration.
Had Spicer worked for a credible news organization, he would have been fired on the spot. But there is no accountability within the Trump White House for issuing “fake news,” only competition to keep up with the organization’s most frequent purveyor of falsehood, the president himself.
And that’s the biggest danger of President Trump’s attacks on the reputable news media, because such organizations are among the only institutions powerful enough to call out a president when he misleads the American people. By attempting to delegitimize reputable news organizations, Trump is hoping to avoid that accountability, thereby undermining our democratic checks and balances.
If all news is “fake news,” after all, there is no news. Americans need to recognize the inherent dishonesty at the core of President Trump’s attacks. They shouldn’t fall for it.