President Trump claims — falsely — that he invented the term “fake news.”
He didn’t, of course, but he sure has popularized it. By one count, he has uttered the word “fake” more than 400 times since he was elected, usually applied to stories, journalists or news organizations.
“I’m so proud I’ve been able to convince people how fake it is,” he bragged to Lou Dobbs, one of his favorite media toadies, on Fox Business Network last fall, talking about mainstream media reporting. He specifically called out CBS and NBC, and, of course, he has consistently trashed the New York Times.
And yet, just over the past few days, there he was, sitting down nicely with the publisher of the New York Times, practically begging for positive treatment from what he, remarkably, referred to as his newspaper. (“I came from Jamaica, Queens . . . and I became president of the United States. I’m sort of entitled to a great story — just one, from my newspaper.”)
And there he was with Margaret Brennan of CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, granting a long interview during which he once again used the “fake news” slur to describe reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was considering leaving his post to run for retiring Sen. Pat Roberts’s seat in Kansas.
Brennan deftly pointed out that Pompeo had indeed talked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about just that political possibility. “Well, he may have spoken to him, but I think he loves being secretary of state,” Trump said in a quick walk-back. (He’s done this countless times. Remember the stalwart defense of the national security adviser Michael Flynn, followed by his firing once the truth about him was unavoidable?)
It’s as simple as this: Trump doesn’t believe that the news about him is fake. No matter how many times he says it.
He merely objects to the fact that it doesn’t reflect well on him.
The right-leaning Media Research Center found that 92 percent of network news stories about Trump over a four-month period last year were negative. The MRC called this “the most hostile coverage of a president in TV news history.”
But negative doesn’t mean untrue. It doesn’t even mean unfair.
And at his core, Trump knows this.
The “fake news” he complains about is merely accurate coverage that he doesn’t like.
Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson drew right-wing plaudits recently when she referred to her former paper’s coverage of the president — as well as The Washington Post’s — as “unmistakably anti-Trump.” (The author of a new book on the press, “Merchants of Truth,” Abramson also praised much of the reporting at both papers.)
I disagree with Abramson — and with the Media Research Center. The fact that the Trump coverage comes off as negative doesn’t make it “hostile” and doesn’t make it “anti-Trump.”
Like the Pompeo report that Trump wanted to brand as “fake,” it’s merely true. And being for the truth doesn’t amount to being against the president.
During the period that the MRC looked at network coverage, these were the major Trump-related topics: the special counsel’s Russia investigation, immigration, the Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination, North Korea and relations between the United States and Russia.
One of the stories that got attention during that period was that nearly 500 children, taken from their parents at the southern border as part of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, remained in U.S. custody.
Should this have been spun as glowingly positive for the president? Was it “hostile” to report on it?
By walking back fake-news claims when he can’t avoid the truth, by agreeing to high-profile interviews with news organizations he claims to despise, and by claiming to be “entitled” to positive coverage from them, Trump shows his real colors.
It wasn’t always thus. Back in the olden days — around 2014 — the term “fake news” started to be used to describe purposeful lies, in the form of news stories that would ideally go viral on Facebook, that were meant to mislead.
But after his election, Trump took this legitimate danger — real “fake news,” if you will — and he weaponized the words. Now the cries of “fake” applied to whatever coverage he didn’t like or that didn’t serve his political purposes, or his need for praise.
His rhetorical jujitsu, combined with the drumbeat of constant repetition, has done lasting harm to reality-based journalism: It deepens mistrust and undermines the crucial role of the free press.
And because his name-calling is so widely imitated, it has done harm around the globe — and at many a small-town newspaper and TV station in America.
Trump’s use of “fake news” as a weapon is one of the most despicable things he has done as president.
Which makes it even worse that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan