It’s ironic that, at his first news conference as President-elect, Donald J. Trump lashed out at various news media, especially CNN and BuzzFeed, accusing them of being “fake news.” BuzzFeed earned the additional distinction of being castigated as a “failing pile of garbage.” The irony is that Trump’s unjustified and unwarranted attacks against the media and the intelligence community revealed him to be biggest purveyor of fake news of anyone in the room.
Fake news is when you promote a story as fact that you know, or should know, is false. And you do so for political or financial gain. That is exactly what Trump did, years ago, when he contended that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery and that Obama was not really born in the United States. There was no evidence to support this claim. It was solidly debunked at the time — and even Trump now admits it is not true.
While Trump’s original claim can qualify as “fake news,” the label would not apply to news sources that report his claim — as long as they note the lack of evidence behind the assertion. If this were not the case, then every news media in the country would qualify as fake news — as they all reported on Trump’s assertion. It was Trump and similarly unscrupulous blogs, by continuing to promote the phony story as true — in the face of all evidence to the contrary — who were the guilty parties here.
Returning to the present, the same logic applies to CNN, BuzzFeed and other sources that disclosed the existence of a document which purports to contain damaging information Russia has on Trump — while correctly noting the information contained in the document is unverified. This is not fake news! Because I believe this distinction is so critical, I want to go through the logic in step-by-step detail:
• The document, as described in the previous paragraph, exists. Therefore, claiming it exists is not a falsehood. Ergo, the claim is not fake news.
• The intelligence community (IC) briefed Trump about the existence of such a document. Although there was some initial uncertainty about whether the briefing took place, it has now been clearly confirmed. Thus, any media claiming that such a briefing occurred is not disseminating fake news. Even when there was uncertainty, there was no sense that the reporting was part of a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.
• The controversial document contains supposed information Russia has concerning Donald Trump. No one — no matter what side of the political fence they are on — disputes this. The only question in dispute is the truth of the allegations in the document. So…reporting that the document contains these allegations is not fake news.
• The allegations are, by all accounts, unverified. Part or all of the information in the document may be false. To suggest that the document’s findings represent established fact would be perpetrating “fake news.” But that’s not what CNN or BuzzFeed did. They clearly acknowledged the dubious nature of the information. Once again: Reporting the details of a possible hoax is not the same as perpetrating a hoax.
• BuzzFeed, unlike almost all other media, not only reported the existence of the document but posted its actual content — revealing details of the damaging claims. As it turns out, many other news organizations were already familiar with this material, having been given the document months before. However, they had refrained from going public with the story precisely because the information could not be verified. Was it a poor journalistic decision for BuzzFeed to publish potentially damaging unverified claims — possibly undeservedly harming Trump’s reputation? Probably so — although the standard for the “public’s right to know” is certainly different for the President than for an “ordinary citizen.”
Regardless, the posted information was, in fact, the actual content of the document. BuzzFeed did not invent the document. As long as they clearly indicated that the information was unverified, it is not fake news.
But, while we’re here, let’s consider the other side of this coin. At this point, the actual truth of many of the allegations remains unknown. Some may be false but others may be accurate. While Trump asserts they are all false (which is the origin of his “fake news” mischaracterization), others (including reputable people in the intelligence community) have reason to believe a significant portion of the material may turn out to be true. If so, this would obliterate any claims of fake news here.
• Was there a political motivation behind going public with this story? Possibly. But so what? That is an entirely separate issue. For example, as we all now know, Wikileaks, during the presidential campaign, released a series of documents obtained from the hacking of the DNC. By all accounts, the hacking and release of the information was politically motivated, designed to hurt Hillary Clinton’s election chances. That didn’t make it “fake news.” To the contrary, the leaked information appeared to be entirely accurate.
• It’s additionally worth noting that Trump accused the intelligence community of leaking this Russia/Trump story. Although we still don’t know the details of how the story was leaked, we do know that the original document was not an intelligence document, was not a classified document and was in the possession of many news sources prior to the intelligence briefing last week. Thus, it is entirely plausible that the intelligence community had nothing to do with the leak of the document. To accuse these organizations of doing so, with such assurance and with no evidence, is not only unjustified, it is edging dangerously close to promoting fake news.
Summing it all up, the real culprit at Trump’s “fake news conference” was neither CNN nor BuzzFeed — nor the FBI or the the CIA. It was Trump himself.
“What’s the big deal here?,” you may ask. Why does correctly assigning the “fake news” label matter so much? It matters a great deal. When Trump points a finger at a CNN reporter and unfairly castigates the news organization, it blurs the distinction not only between what is and isn’t fake news but between what is and isn’t true in general. It encourages false equivalences between legitimate news sites and the true promoters of fake news. It makes it that much harder for average citizens to disentangle fact from fiction and that much easier to get away with lies. And that is exactly what a demagogue would hope to accomplish.
When a person in power in government shamefully discredits a legitimate news source — falsely painting it with a brush of fake news — it amounts to a form of censorship. To the extent that the false claim is accepted by the public, it shuts down the voice of the news source — and offers an implied threat to all other media that might similarly challenge the government. In the end, the only beneficiary of such action is the demagogue himself. It is in all of our interests to not let this happen!