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The Truth about Fake News

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Today is President’s Day, a national holiday honoring the birthday of our first president, George Washington (actually born on February 22, 1732, a mere 285 years ago on Wednesday). Today also serves as the one-month milepost in the administration of Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States.

The first month of the Trump administration has been just as tumultuous as the campaign. The people elected a man unlike any to proceed him and he’s governing unlike anyone before him. In the first month, the over-arching battle that’s on the mind of American is not the war on terror but rather Trump’s war against the mainstream media and his emerging narrative that most traditional media outlets are now peddling “fake news.”

During the 2016 campaign, the term “fake news” was used to describe news items (mostly propagated through Facebook and Twitter) that were pure hoaxes or propaganda, mostly designed to harm one of the presidential candidates. Let me be clear: there is a type of “fake news” you see re-Tweeted or posted on Facebook that is actually fake. It’s something that is invented, made up out of thin air. The most effective fake news is intended to play to our worst fears or confirm our beliefs about a politician or social topic.

According to BuzzFeed, here some of the “fake news” headlines relating to politics from 2016. Some of these headlines are hilarious.

  • Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge Of Allegiance In Schools Nationwide
  • Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement
  • Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America
  • FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide
  • ISIS Leader Calls for American Muslim Voters to Support Hillary Clinton
  • Hillary Clinton In 2013: “I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought”
  • President Obama Confirms He Will Refuse To Leave Office If Trump Is Elected
  • Van Full Of Illegals Shows Up To Vote Clinton At SIX Polling Places, Still Think Voter Fraud Is A Myth?
  • Pence: “Michelle Obama Is The Most Vulgar First Lady We’ve Ever Had”

Each of these “articles” was engaged with on Facebook over 350,000 times. The heavyweight champion of fake news was #1 (the one about Obama’s executive order), which was shared, commented on or reacted to on Facebook over two million times. Some of the headlines are just patently ridiculous to anyone who would take more than a millisecond to ponder what they say but a lot of people (hundreds of thousands) believed them.

Anyway, now, we’re at a moment where the President of the United States is calling the reporting of media outlets such as NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and the New York Times as purveyors of fake news. On Thursday, Trump had a free-wheeling, rambunctious press conference, in which he took questions from far more reporters than President Obama ever did in eight years in office. The press conference was classic Trump: confrontational, unapologetic, bombastic, and often humorous. The funniest line (for me) was when he told CNN’s Jim Acosta that CNN was no longer “fake news” but “very fake news.”

On Friday, Trump upped the ante in his crusade against news coverage unfavorable to him:

And, as is his wont, Trump has a legitimate point of view but takes things way too far. Arizona Senator John McCain commented (this Sunday on Meet the Press)  that “dictators get started” by silencing the media.

“We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve — I’m very serious now — if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press, and without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.
They get started by suppressing free press, in other words, a consolidation of power — when you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”
— Arizona Senator John McCain (on NBC’s Meet the Press)

McCain is the one Republican in Congress who is freely speaking his mind regarding his criticism of the new President. Perhaps it’s because he just won his latest re-election campaign and will be 86 years old the next time he could potentially run for the Senate again. Perhaps it’s just McCain being the maverick that’s he’s always been.

What McCain articulated is something that a great many Americans truly fear, that Trump is trying to make himself King Donald I. Personally, I don’t think Trump is trying to become a dictator but he is clearly thin-skinned when it comes to media criticism. If you say something negative about him, you’re a loser, a complete disaster, or a total lightweight. If you’re in the media and you report on a story unflattering to the President, you’re peddling fake news.

 

Let me be clear about something. I am a political junkie. I sample shows on all of the major networks networks, plus CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. I read articles from the “failing” New York Times almost every day. I probably consume more political media than anybody I know who has a job, with the possible exception of President Donald J. Trump. Here’s what I know about the networks and the Times. They are NOT fake news. They are certainly not the enemy of the people. However, they are clearly Trump’s enemy and any protestations to the contrary are not credible.

Here is where Trump has a reasonable beef: the mainstream media (which we’ll define as the three longtime broadcast networks, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post) is unquestionably biased against him. The heavy majority of editors and journalists in the mainstream media are left-leaning and most of them are abjectly horrified that Trump is the president. That’s ironic since those same outlets helped Trump get to the Oval Office by giving him vastly more media attention and airtime than the other 16 Republican presidential contenders combined.

The media is indisputably biased against Republicans in general and Trump specifically. It has been this way for a long time. But these media outlets are not just inventing stories out of thin air. They are not making things up.

Still, there is bias and it can be seen in a few ways:

The mainstream media thinks that Trump as President as dangerous, that he’s unqualified for the job and that he’s racist and xenophobic. Therefore, when a bit of news emerges that is damaging Trump, the media displays confirmation bias. The media collectively got off to a terrible start the day after Trump was inaugurated when TIME’s Zeke Miller reported that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. In fact, Miller was simply going off a photo in which he didn’t see the bust. It turns out, though, that the bust was simply just blocked by a cameraman. When he realized his mistake, Miller corrected the record but in Trump’s mind, the damage was done.

Listen, I don’t purport to know what was in Zeke Miller’s heart but I’m fairly certain that he and many media colleagues wanted that story to be true. To the majority of the media, Trump’s presidency is an unmitigated calamity. They fear the worst and they are salivating for anything that paints him in an unflattering light. What better symbol of what an awful President he’ll be than the removal of the bust of MLK? The point is that the MLK bust controversy wasn’t a true story and it’s not entirely unreasonable for the newly inaugurated president to view it as a signal that he was not going to be treated fairly.

The bias shown by the media is also revealed by the stories they choose to cover. Regarding immigration, CNN might devote a three-minute piece to a heart-tugging story about a family being split apart by a deportation order while Fox News will spend those three minutes on a crime committed by an illegal immigrant. The choice in what to report on or write about can itself reveal a bias.

When I was writing my blog during the campaign, many of you, my Republican friends, felt that I was biased against Trump because I was blasting away at him more than I was against Hillary Clinton. The truth is that, whether you love him or loathe him, Trump is fascinating. It was frankly more fun to write about him. And my clearly articulated bias was that I didn’t want either one to be President.

 

The irony of “fake news” narrative is that Trump is just copying the previous administration of turning part of the media into the opposition party. Obama did this with Fox News. There was a concerted effort by people in the Obama administration to delegitimize Fox News as an arm of the Republican party and many people (including some of you, my readers) repeatedly diminished Fox as “Faux News” or “not real” news.

The truth is that Fox has an obvious right-leaning bent but it’s also true that (among cable news networks) CNN and MSNBC have an equally obvious left-leaning inclination. CNN used to play it a little more down the middle but, in the age of Trump, the network is virtually indistinguishable from the liberal MSNBC.

Members of the left-leaning media need to be careful to double-check their sources when reporting unflattering details about the Trump administration. Besides the MLK bust story, there have been other examples you can find in which a reporter overreached on their reporting or conclusions or took an isolated comment out of context, giving fodder to Trump’s “fake news” narrative. You can see a list of them as documented by the right-leaning The Federalist.

 

Of course, the fact that it’s Donald Trump claiming that members of the media are dishonest or telling lies is kind of hysterical considering that he got his start politically by pushing conspiracy theories (notably that Obama was not a U.S. citizen) and now, even as President, says things that aren’t true all the time. Big league.

Whether it’s the size of his inauguration crowd or his claim that he would have won the popular vote if it weren’t for 3 to 5 million illegal votes against him or that he won the biggest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan, Trump constantly exaggerates, boasts or flat out makes things up. From Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post writers who fact-checks politicians, Trump earned a whopping 59 four-Pinocchio ratings during the presidential campaign and three more in just the first week of his presidency. I’ve looked at Kessler’s fact checking articles for years now and, while sometimes he displays his own bias, his ratings are mostly accurate in my view. But I guess he and I are both fake news. You can link here to Kessler’s article about the first seven days of Trump’s presidency.

 

Anyway, don’t expect the President to change his “fake news” tune anytime soon, or ever. If we learned anything from the presidential campaign, Trump is an absolute master media manipulator and he was highly effective in giving his opponents labels that stuck. “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, “Little Marco” Rubio, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, and “Crooked Hillary” Clinton were all nicknames that Trump repeated endlessly and they stuck in people’s minds, leading to a massive confirmation bias in the nation to the detriment of those so labeled. Now, Trump, in his crusade to fight back against the inevitable ongoing negative media coverage, has chosen “Fake News” as his label against what he perceives to be his chief opposition.

Don’t be fooled. If you think that the left-leaning TV networks and newspapers are just wantonly making up stories in an effort to bring down Trump, you’re wrong. They’re clearly portraying his administration in a light as unflattering as possible, but they’re not peddling fake information. They’re not inventing the news, just like Fox doesn’t invent the news that liberals don’t like.

Let me sum it up in the most personal terms (sorry if this offends):

If you’re a Trump supporter and you think everything he says is true and that the media is deliberately telling lies and making things up, I’m eager to sample the drugs you’re taking. Let me put it another way: if the only thing you watch regarding politics on TV is Hannity on Fox News, you’re only getting half of the story.

Conversely, if you’re anti-Trump and you don’t acknowledge that the mainstream media has an inherent bias against him in particular and Republicans in general, you’re sticking your head in the sand.

The media, in their zeal to discredit Trump, sometimes overreaches and gets it wrong. Trump, in his inimitable style, says what’s on his mind and is not hesitant to overstate, exaggerate or outright lie. But he’s talking about things that a lot of people care about and they believe in his unique anti-politician promise to get things done. Those who oppose the Trump presidency should never forget the themes of his message that got him elected and it’s far, far more than the caricature painted about him of racism and xenophobia. Hillary Clinton made this mistake: she and her campaign degenerated to calling Trump “anti” everything and forgot to make a positive case for her.

 

Finally, as a public service, let me offer a suggestion to those of you on both the pro-Trump side and the anti-Trump sides. The suggestion is to learn more about what the other side thinks and to learn about it in their own words.

If you’re a Democrat, watch a Fox News show or read a right-leaning publication occasionally. I recommend Special Report with Bret Baier (at 6p ET/3p PT) on Fox. It’s a straight news program for the first 35 minutes followed by a panel of three or four commentators. There’s always one liberal-minded member on the panel and usually one conservative Trump critic as well. The conservative Trump critics (like Charles Krauthammer or Stephen Hayes) are probably the best analysts of what’s happening in the Trump White House. They’re Republicans who were previously in the “Never Trump” camp which means that they’re not going to be in lock-step with either the Democrats on the Hill or with the President. They’re going to give you the most unbiased expert analysis you can find right now.

If you’re a Republican, watch something on CNN or MSNBC or read the Washington Post or the New York Times. It’s not fake news, it’s left-leaning news. On TV, I recommend MTP Daily (with Chuck Todd from Meet the Press). It’s on at 5p ET/2p PT. Todd plays it pretty straight and also has a panel of commentators from both sides. Hardball with Chris Matthews (7p ET/4p PT), also on MSNBC, is also pretty good. Matthews states his liberal worldview openly but is a good interviewer and is fair enough that he’ll get Republicans to come on his show. If you want to read rather than watch, I recommend signing up for daily email updates from The Hill magazine, which provides links to articles on both sides.

Finally, I highly recommend sampling more than one of the Sunday morning talk shows. All five of them (on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and CNN) have balanced perspectives, featuring interviews with both Democrats and Republicans and panelists with voices on both sides.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this fake blog.

Chris Bodig

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Updated: May 15, 2017 — 10:37 pm

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