Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Here's why Trump’s attacks on ‘fake news’ succeed

By Callum Borchers

February 17, 2017 at 12:39 PM

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President Trump berated the media repeatedly at his press conference on Feb. 16, calling CNN, the New York Times and other outlets "dishonest" and "very fake news," for reporting unfavorable stories about him. (Video: Reuters / Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If you read the New York Times report that several of President Trump's aides and associates communicated regularly during the campaign with Russian intelligence officials, you know that Trump's rebuttal at a news conference Thursday made little sense. That's a big "if," however.

The reality is that Trump supporters, generally speaking, don't read the Times. When the Pew Research Center surveyed voters after the election, the Times didn't even register among Trump backers' primary news sources.

The Trump base's media consumption habits — of which the president is undoubtedly aware — is the key to success for attacks on "fake news" reports by the Times and other major outlets that Trump voters disdain. If his supporters don't actually read a report, such as the one the Times ran Wednesday, then Trump doesn't have to respond to it, really. He can respond to a version of his own invention, and his backers will be none the wiser.

Related: [Donald Trump’s combative, grievance-filled news conference, annotated]

To see how Trump's strategy works, let's review what he said about the New York Times story and a subsequent report in the Wall Street Journal at Thursday's news conference:

The failing New York Times wrote a big, long front-page story yesterday. And it was very much discredited, as you know. It was — it's a joke. And the people mentioned in the story, I noticed they were on television today saying they never even spoke to Russia. …

I think the one person — I don't think I've ever spoken to him. I don't think I've ever met him. And he actually said he was a very low-level member of, I think, a committee for a short period of time. I don't think I ever met him. …

The other person said he never spoke to Russia; never received a call. Look at his phone records, et cetera, et cetera. And the other person, people knew that he represented various countries, but I don't think he represented Russia, but knew that he represented various countries. That's what he does. I mean, people know that.

That's Mr. [Paul] Manafort. … He said that he has absolutely nothing to do and never has with Russia. And he said that very forcefully. I saw his statement. He said it very forcefully. Most of the papers don't print it because that's not good for their stories.

So the three people that they talked about all totally deny it. …

And just while you're at it, because you mentioned this, Wall Street Journal did a story today that was almost as disgraceful as the failing New York Times's story yesterday. …

I will say that I never get phone calls from the media. How did they write a story like that in the Wall Street Journal without asking me or how did they write a story in the New York Times, put it on the front page?

For starters, it is flat-out false that these newspapers did not call for comment. The Journal, which reported that some U.S. intelligence officials are withholding bits of information from Trump, quoted a White House official, who said "there is nothing that leads us to believe that this is an accurate account of what is actually happening." The White House declined to provide a comment to the Times.

If you read the stories, you knew as soon as Trump opened his mouth that his complaint about "never get[ting] phone calls from the media" was illegitimate. But if you didn't read the stories, you might have believed that the White House didn't have a chance to comment.

Related: [Donald Trump is doing A-okay with the only people he cares about]

Trump also was wrong when he asserted that Manafort's denial of contact with Russia was omitted. The Times interviewed Manafort and printed his response.

And Trump's reference to "the three people that they talked about" was a bit misleading. He could have said "three of the people they talked about," but he implied (inaccurately) that the Times's report dealt with only three people when he said "the three people." The Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted calls involving other, unnamed Trump associates.

The three people named in the story were Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman; Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser; and Roger Stone, a veteran and controversial Republican operative (and longtime Trump friend) who worked for the campaign early in the GOP primary.

Trump said he "noticed they were on television … saying they never even spoke to Russia," but the denials Trump "noticed" were not new. The Times noted in its story that "all of the men have strongly denied that they had any improper contacts with Russian officials."

Trump delivered a classic straw-man argument in his Thursday news conference. He knocked down a version of the Times report that didn't really exist — a version in which his White House and his former campaign staffers were viciously attacked without any opportunity to defend themselves.

The ploy was obvious to anyone who actually read the report, but the president made the safe bet that his backers did not.


Callum Borchers covers the intersection of politics and media.

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