Global approval of U.S. leadership has been tanking under President Trump, according to Gallup surveys. Don’t worry, however: Trump appears content with his influence, to judge from a remark he made in a joint news conference on Tuesday afternoon with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
“I’m very proud to hear the president use the term ‘fake news,'" said Trump toward the end of the event.
Indeed, Bolsonaro had said the following: “Brazil and the United States stand side by side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect to traditional family lifestyles, respect to God, our creator, against the gender ideology or the politically correct attitudes and against fake news.”
A glossary may be helpful here. “Respect to traditional family lifestyles” means “disrespect to LGBTQ lives.” “If a gay couple came to live in my building,” Bolsonaro said in 2011, “my property will lose value. If they walk around holding hands, kissing, it will lose value! No one says that out of fear of being pinned as homophobe.” “Politically correct attitudes” means “any views that deviate from authoritarian fearmongering”: “The vast majority of potential immigrants do not have good intentions,” Bolsonaro said in a Fox News interview this week. “They do not intend to do the best — or do good to the U.S. people.” And “fake news” means “news that reflects poorly on the Bolsonaro-Trump crowd.”
As we’ve written here before, “fake news” emerged in late 2016 to identify false stories frequently engineered for political ends and big profits through viral sharing. Trump co-opted the term before taking office, using it to describe legitimate news reporting that shed a bad light on his actions, as when he called CNN’s Jim Acosta “fake news” in January 2017 after the network revealed that high-ranking national security officials had briefed Trump on the infamous Russian dossier.
The president has used his Twitter account to establish eminent domain over the definition:
A template of sorts has emerged as a result of Trump’s advocacy. Even before taking office, Bolsonaro declared war against his own country’s “fake news” media. Here’s a Reuters report from last November:
With half a billion dollars in public-sector marketing budgets coming under his discretion, the fiery former Army captain is threatening to slash ad buys with adversarial media groups, striking at the financial foundations of Brazil’s free press.
After a campaign in which Bolsonaro dismissed investigative reporting as “fake news” invented by a corrupt establishment and his supporters went after individual journalists, the threats are sending a chill through the country’s newsrooms.
Asked in a TV interview last week if he would respect press freedom even for his favorite foil, newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s largest circulation daily, Bolsonaro’s answer was curt.
“That newspaper is done,” Bolsonaro said in a tense TV Globo interview. “As far as I’m concerned with government advertising — press that acts like that, lying shamelessly, won’t have any support from the federal government.”
And wouldn’t you know: Attacks on the Brazilian media have spiked in the past year, according to statistics compiled by Brazil’s National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj). “Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro targeted journalists the most, according to Fenaj: they were responsible for 23 of 30 incidents involving voters/protesters,” notes a write-up of the findings.
There’s documentary evidence that Trump is aware of the relationship between his own rhetoric and the threats to journalists across the globe. It comes from New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who used two face-to-face meetings with Trump over the past year to press him on this very topic. “The concern I raised then was about your anti-press rhetoric — ‘fake news,’ ‘enemy of the people,'” Sulzberger told Trump at a meeting this winter, referring to a previous session. “And at the time, I said I was concerned that it wasn’t just divisive, it was potentially dangerous and warned that I thought it could have consequences. I feel like in the time since, we’ve started to see some of those consequences play out. We’ve seen, around the world, an unprecedented rise in attacks on journalists, threats to journalists.”
Trump sounded interested, and when Sulzberger praised his predecessors for sticking up for press freedoms, the president said, “I think I am, too. I want to be.”
Like so many other things to emerge from Trump’s mouth, that was a lie. In fact, he wants to be the leader of a transcontinental “fake news” brigade. Sulzberger shouldn’t have wasted his time.