Journalists have not suddenly given up their craft to start manufacturing stories. Veteran reporters are not sowing wild tales to undermine a leader they don’t like. The media is just asking tough questions and digging up stories, the way it always has.
Yet the 45th president of the United States is all too happy to brand the largest institutions in journalism as purveyors of “fake news,” to erode their credibility and distract from the real crises plaguing his young administration.
Friday marked the debut of a new divide-and-conquer strategy, where the White House excluded reporters it doesn’t like from a media availability, hoping to create even more friction with the press.
Sadly, it worked. Just look at all the stories that followed, about Trump’s ongoing feud with journalists.
WATCH: Trump ban news organizations that question him
The president is now manufacturing as much doubt about the media’s work as he can, knowing he can create an audience of people who will never believe the truth, no matter how real things are.
In my experience, these tactics are effective. Covering the downfall of the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford meant being the frequent target of the mayor and his brother, with my work dismissed as “lies” and “biased” during press conferences.
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Ford’s supporters ate it up, and as the phoney feud deepened, so did the stack of angry hate mail in my inbox.
In Ford Nation, context was dismissed as bias, pointing out contradictions was slammed as editorializing, and digging up a real story was seen as an attack.
In Trump’s America, those things now make reporters the “enemy of the American people,” as the White House appropriates the term “fake news” for its own use.
Trump’s efforts to clear the air Friday, seemed an attempt to sow real confusion about what “fake” means.
“I’m not against the media or press,” Trump told supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, DC., explaining that “in covering my comments the dishonest [media] didn’t explain that I called the fake news the enemy of the people.”
But look back at Trump’s original tweet, and you’ll see he branded pretty much every mainstream media organization as “fake.”
In other words, the genie is already out of the bottle.
On Friday, Trump went on to suggest a story that used unnamed sources would be, in his view, bogus. “Let there be no more sources,” he proclaimed to thunderous applause at the conference, suggesting when reporters use sources, “they just make them up.”
WATCH: Trump says media should be banned from using anonymous sources
It’s a smart, deeply cynical strategy, but let’s be clear: the story of the press being out to get Trump is as fake as fake news gets.
Let’s start with the fact that the Trump administration doesn’t actually provide proof that the stories it disputes as fraudulent actually are. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The president admitted last week that the stories based on leaks coming out of his administration “are real,” but “the news is fake, because so much of the news is fake.”
The White House knows the media’s tendency to navel gaze will turn the president’s claims of fakes and feuds into an all-too-convenient distraction from a lot of all-too-real news.
Look how quickly Trump was able to change the channel after weeks of non-stop coverage about his administration’s links to Russia, while convincing his supporters that the whole Russia thing isn’t a real story anyway.
Nothing to see here, folks! Please, move along.
WATCH: Trump calls reports on administration’s ties to Russia ‘fake news’
The Trump administration knows it’s only natural that the press would respond, and that reporters would use their own medium to analyze an unprecedented attack on their work, and in doing so, talk less about everything else going on.
The problem is, Trump country isn’t listening to the other side of the story, and that’s truly worrisome.
If Trump’s supporters refuse to believe what they read, see or hear, unless it’s from the president, he can minimize the fallout from real problems.
Ironically, many of Trump’s supporters still consume his rants about “fake news” from the mainstream press. The brilliance of Trump’s strategy is that he is still able to use the media as his own personal megaphone, knowing his supporters will just tune out once he’s done talking.
The fact that this tactic is working, at least with his supporters, is frightening. Wednesday’s Quinnipiac University poll showed a big split on American voters’ trust in the media versus the Republican President. 52 per cent said they trust the media more than Donald Trump (37 per cent). But when you divide along party lines – 86 per cent of Democratic voters favoured the media over Trump while 76 per cent of Republican voters believe Trump is telling the truth.
Alternatively a recent Fox News poll reported that by a slim margin, voters trust the Trump administration (45 per cent) more than the reporters (42 per cent) who cover the White House. Trump has repeatedly praised Fox News for their coverage of his presidency.
Plenty of ink has already been spilled over how dangerous and unprecedented Trump’s demonization of the press is, but there’s still little sense of how the media should actually respond.
The press can’t simply ignore Trump’s efforts to discredit their craft, but they also can’t spend too much time covering Trump’s attacks without lending credibility to perceptions of a real feud.
The media also can’t prioritize Trump’s attacks over other much more important stories coming out of his administration.
The only answer seems to be for reporters to continue to do what they do best: dig up stories, ask tough questions, and do so with the highest ethical standards.
The rest will sort itself out, and in my experience the truth always finds a way to prevail, even if not everyone believes it.
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