Tag Archives: political journalism

Fake News?

It’s disheartening to hear a president use “fake news” to dismiss the very best of American journalism.

It’s the President’s favorite theme.  If the phrase had a history prior to his administration, “fake news” has been reborn as the mantra of the Trump insurgency.

         A worrisome sign of  Trump’s legacy

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the President uses the term to mean news coverage he does not find to his liking. When he took that famous escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy several years ago he must not have understood that his words and checkered business would be under intense scrutiny.

Trump’s frustration with the news media is hardly unique. Most presidents and many mayors and governors have gone through rocky relationships with the Fourth Estate.  At the same time, Americans understand that good journalism is sometimes going to make the powerful uncomfortable.  Witness the sentimental heroics displayed in films like The Post (2017), All the President’s Men (1976), Frost/Nixon (2008) and Good Night and Good Luck (2005).

A reasonable description of this moment in our national politics is that, indeed, the American leader is getting terrible press.  No doubt about it.  He and his administration are at the center of a cable news cycle intensely focused on miscues and misdeeds. Evidence of malfeasance is also the subject of most of the negative coverage in the legacy print news media, including the New York Times and Washington Post, and in public policy publications like The Atlantic, The New Republic and, increasingly, The New Yorker. If that were not bad enough for the West Wing, reports from conservative outlets are only marginally more positive, with the important exception of Fox News. The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard are far from positive.  In addition, important conservative journalists like Max Boot, George Will and Bill Kristol are not fans.  Even Tucker Carlson is wavering.

The term has become its own reality, obliterating distinctions between rigorous journalism and ill-considered rants.

Reality television and social media have proven to be bad models for the President. Anyone with a knowledge of American civil life will understand that “news” can take many forms and be shaped from a variety of perspectives.  Phoney journalism has a long history in supermarket tabloids and reality shows not known for treating news gathering as a serious profession.  And, of course, internet sites and social media largely ignore the rigors of traditional reporting. Most websites do little more aggregate stories from other sources, while issuing polemics to like-minded partisans. Indeed, there’s enough fake news around for everybody to lament.

Even so, it is disheartening to see a president dismiss the very best of American journalism from our legacy media.  Among his followers, at least, this bogus indictment has the effect of undermining a cornerstone institution in American life. “Fake news” has become its own reality, obliterating distinctions between rigorous reporting and ill-considered rants. The phrase has also become a poison in the American body politic, slowly infecting every policy decision and utterance.

What is traditionally celebrated by a President now exists under a cloud of wild allegations.

It seems like Trump or his instructors at the University of Pennsylvania badly missed the mark many years ago. One wonders if a Wharton degree includes courses in American history and politics. How could he have missed the lessons of Jefferson, Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes and so many other defenders of the free press in an open society?  Why is the language of human rights and press freedom hardly visible even at the margins of his limited lexicon?

Some of us occasionally have to pinch ourselves to realize that we are witnessing the use of the nation’s highest office to persecute a core institution of civil society. Among other things, Trump’s relentless attacks mimic old Soviet habits of fueling distrust for any sources not under the thumb of the state. Rather than celebrating a core value of the great American experiment, this administration seems intent on discrediting it.

The Limits of Forbearance

                                           Pixabay

It remains to be seen how long Americans will accept a drama queen as President: how long it will be before their forbearance for the man who can’t fill the part is tapped out.

This site is all about maximizing the chances for success in connecting with others. But if we flip that goal over, we get an equally interesting effect by testing the limits of behavior a mile wide of the norm.

I’ve been thinking about this watching television news people on cable networks, trying not to register shock that the President of the United States has just trashed another convention of the presidency.  News people are expert for keeping calm in the presence of disorder and rudeness. Serious and accomplished reporters can be very good for taking any act and trying to place it into a context that normalizes it for the beat they are covering.  This is partly a function of their self-definitions as professional observers.

Those of us with shorter fuses may not have this kind of professional elan.  But that’s what forbearance gives us: the use of euphemism and “just the facts” to keep an offensive act from devolving into a comedy of manners.

 We would never think to associate public acts so careless and random as authentic  examples of “presidential rhetoric.”

It’s not too much to say that this President has seriously undermined the conventional role functions of the Presidency.  We would never think to associate public acts so careless and random as authentic  examples of “presidential rhetoric.”  But we’ve had over fifty days of them, and then on one recent Saturday:  an astonishing and libelous tweet accusing President Obama of tapping phones at Trump Tower, followed minutes later by  a second missive expressing giddy delight that a reality star was cancelling his show. These rants came a few days after Trump gave us the wide-eyed and definitive insight that “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

Nobody? That must have struck analysts and experts in three previous administrations as news.  No one else had apparently been able to grasp the complexities of American health care.

These combined responses and many more like them seem like evidence for what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a condition where an individual with limited competencies lacks even the capacity to understand how limited they are.  No wonder one of the dominant tropes emerging in the coverage of this president is of a man-child.

Donald Trump’s over 500 angry, misspelled and boorish Tweets alone would have disqualified him for leadership in most large organizations.  Can we assume that one day these rhetorical ejaculations will greet visitors at his Presidential library?

To be sure, we grant every White House occupant some non-presidential moments: Nixon angrily shoving his press secretary toward journalists, Johnson showing photographers a surgery scar on his fat belly, Ford diving head-first down the stairs of his airplane, Clinton lying about his relations with Monica Lewinsky, George W. Bush commenting at a press conference on the British Prime Minister’s brand of toothpaste.

But nothing has scratched the mostly pristine finish of the institutional Presidency like Trump. He has entire seizures of misdirected utterance and grotesque overstatement. His willful ignorance, bluster and conspiracy-mongering, are not just unpresidential, but anti-presidential. His penchant for turning almost every claim into an accusation and most statements into shaky affirmations of his fragile ego has made his short tenure an unintended psychodrama: an embarrassment to be endured.  His first address to Congress showed that he can follow linear thinking if it is fully scripted.  Yet he seems uninterested in the kinds of details and substantive exchanges that the press and public long for.  So it remains to be seen how long Americans will accept a drama queen as President.  Like a school play, the mishaps and miscues are sometimes funny.  But how long  will we accept this bad actor before our forbearance is tapped out?

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Gary C. Woodward has written about the Presidencies of Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.