President Trump (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
Media critic

“Fake news” is perhaps the most elastic term in contemporary U.S. politics, thanks to the Twitter account of President Trump:

By this standard, a segment of commentary on Fox Business Network surely sidesteps this slanderous basket. Commentator Ben Stein examined the Senate victories for Republican candidates — several of whom received campaign-rally support from the president. “There’s only been five times in the last 105 years that an incumbent President has won seats in the Senate in the off-year election,” said Stein. “Mr. Trump has magic about him. This guy has magic coming out his ears. He is an astonishing vote-getter, an astonishing campaigner. Republicans are unbelievably lucky to have him, and I’m just awed at how well they’ve done. … It’s all the Trump magic. Trump is a magic man.”

So Trump tweeted out his comments. Lest there be any confusion, Stein’s praise stands as the president’s standard — that’s “proper credit.”

Others have nodded to the impact of Trump’s frenetic preelection rallying for Republican Senate candidates, though it’s unclear whether such commentary would qualify as “proper credit” in the eyes of the country’s most powerful narcissist. “I think you can also look at the results tonight if you’re President Trump and you can say, “My political instincts are generally still pretty good,’ ” said CNN political analyst Abby Phillip late Tuesday night. “‘I still know how to get my people out. And I still know how to pull it out in the places where I need to.'”

If media types need any further guidance on “proper credit,” just listen to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway in her cable-news appearances: “I think that the big story from last night … is how his engagement made history yet again.”

A January 2018 study found that “four in 10 [or 42 percent of] Republicans consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be ‘fake news'” — a dynamic that would be hard to divorce from Trump’s campaign to contort the term. As BuzzFeed News’s Craig Silverman wrote at the end of 2017, “fake news” once referred to “completely false information that was created and spread for profit.”

Then it got hijacked. On Jan. 11, 2017, during a famous press conference during his presidential transition, Trump singled out correspondent Jim Acosta of CNN, saying, “I’m not going to give you a question — you are fake news.” The rest is definition-bending history:

Why the need to keep inventing new interpretations of “fake news”? Because news organizations apparently don’t make catastrophic gaffes with enough frequency to feed the Trump White House’s anti-media campaign. Accordingly, new “fake news” offenses must be fashioned. Anything to shield the president from negative — or evenhanded — coverage. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer talked about the problem just days after his widely panned inaugural press appearance. “The narrative — and the default narrative is always negative and it’s demoralizing,” he said, evincing no understanding of the U.S. presidency.

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