This is What the President Means When He Says “Fake News”
Official Washington and the press corps are in the midst of yet another meltdown about President Trump. The excuse this time is today’s 70+ minute rambling press conference in which the President announced a whopping five things that were genuine news:
1. National Security Advisor Mike Flynn was fired because he lied to Mike Pence, not for talking with the Russian Ambassador about sanctions before the inauguration.
2. Obamacare repeal/replace will be ready by early to mid-March, and tax reform will come after that, not before.
3. The President is not aware of any campaign staff talking to Russians during the campaign.
4. Alex Acosta will be the new Labor Secretary nominee.
5. New EO on the travel ban will be out next week and will be tailored to comply with the 9th Circuit ruling.
That’s the only actual news that was presented during this entire press conference. The rest was the usual back and forth, hyperbole, and repetition of dubious statements that have become the President’s hallmark. In that regard, there was nothing newsworthy or unique about it. That is not, however, what you’ll likely see on the news right now, tonight, or tomorrow, nor is it what you’ll read in the papers. Instead of pointing out what little actual news there is, you’ll hear hours and hours and read article after article on how surreal and non-conformist this press conference was.
That, however, is part of the reason why the President has been complaining about being treated unfairly by the media. The media doesn’t simply report news and facts. They also decide what context they want to present, and that is where bias and unfairness creep in. There was a perfect example of that on display during the press conference itself.
At one point, the President made a statement in response to a question about the leaks regarding the on-going investigation in Russia’s attempts to influence the election.
Acosta was commenting around 3:04 about a question asked by Carl Cameron about the leaks, when the President said “[t]he leaks are real, yes. It’s the news about the leaks that is fake.”
Acosta seemed to think this didn’t make sense, and many critics of the President agree – it’s been roundly mocked on Twitter. But if you stop and think about what he said and understand why he said it, this statement is illustrative of the President’s thinking about how the media presents stories, and it provides a good insight into why the President keeps harping on how he’s being treated by the media.
The President has a point. How the press chooses to write their stories and do their reporting, and what they choose to report on can be considered unfair or fake if you view the role of the media as presenting important facts that the American people need to know in an objective way so they can understand what is happening in the world and react to it. Not everybody thinks that’s the role of the media, but Trump does. Essentially, he’s calling the media out on their spin.
A perfect example of that spin was yesterday’s blockbuster in The New York Times: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence,” which was one of the most read and talked about stories of this week.
Sounds bad – sounds like Trump’s campaign was knowingly talking to Russian spies. Makes it sound like they were working with them directly. Makes it sound like they were coordinating with the Russians on the campaign. Sounds like maybe they were asking the Russians to help attack Hillary. Maybe even these campaign officials were Russian agents feeding information to Russian intelligence officers and collaborating with them against their own country. After all, it’s on the front page of the nation’s paper of record. People shared the article on social media, and it’s likely many never clicked through to read the article.
The problem is that we don’t know if any of those things actually happened. The likelihood is that they did not. These are simply the kinds of logical inferences, allegations and speculation that have been bandied about by legions of reporters and TV talking heads over the last few weeks.
Even assuming a reader did click through to the actual story, the lede plays directly into those logical inferences, as it reads “[p]hone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.”
The article itself acknowledges that this doesn’t tell us whether the allegations of collusion can be substantiated, noting in the last sentence of the second paragraph and the third paragraph: “The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election. The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.”
No evidence of cooperation on the issue that most Americans who are concerned about this issue are concerned about – that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to hack the DNC and influence the outcome of the election. Yet that information is buried three paragraphs in, after an inflammatory headline and it is qualified by the use of “so far” despite the fact that these officials had access to the transcripts of the intercepts of these communications, which is how they even knew the contacts were made in the first place.
All of this is part of an on-going investigation of the Russian hacking incidents, which the FBI is handling. The article notes this as well: “All of the current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.”
That’s right. These current and former officials (former meaning they were likely Obama political appointees) were sharing their knowledge of a classified investigation with the press without permission.
Again. As has been happening at an alarming rate in every Presidential administration I can remember. That, however, isn’t the story that the Times chose to report on.
There are other issues with the article, too. Namely, it’s skimpy on details and speaks entirely in generalities. We don’t know who these officials are, other than they were unwilling to speak on the record because they shouldn’t have been speaking to the press at all. Despite reaching out (or answering the phone), they wouldn’t discuss most of the salient details that might actually be useful in putting this story in context, as the article notes saying “[t]he officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.”
We also don’t know who on the Trump campaign, other than Paul Manafort, who was removed months before the election last year and whose relationship with Ukraine and Russia has been well documented, was involved in these conversations. The article never elaborates. The President seemed to indicate that he was aware of one of the names in the press conference, but he also didn’t disclose who, other than to say the “staffer” was a low level person and the President had never talked to him and didn’t recall meeting him (which, to be fair, he says often even when there’s evidence that he has met and talked with the person in question).
The bottom line, though, is that this headline, the lede, and the way the entire piece was crafted and its having been run on A1 above the fold of the nation’s most well known, revered (or reviled, depending on your perspective) newspaper was designed to feed into the narrative that the Trump campaign was somehow involved in whatever shenanigans the Russians pulled during the campaign.
That’s not accurate and it’s not fair.
The article itself even discloses the reasons why that’s not accurate or fair, even if the explanations are so buried and qualified, most Americans will never notice them. In the end, despite the massive attention this story has gotten, what is actually “new” information is so limited and vague as to be almost valueless. Yet you can be sure that it feeds this continuing unnecessary and pointless narrative about the President and Russia, and tomorrow and the next day dozens of reporters and commentators will spill barrels of electronic ink talking about it.
Thus, when the President says “the leaks are real, the news about the leaks is fake” that’s basically true – some current and former intelligence officials did leak one bit of news about an on-going investigation in an apparent violation of the law. The story written about that information, though, makes the actual revelation appear more important and more damning than it actually is, and that makes many people, me included, cynical about why they wrote the article the way they did. This piece could have easily been run under a headline of “Intelligence Officials See No Evidence of Trump Collusion with Russians During Campaign,” without changing a comma in the text. Yet they chose not to go that route, opting for the more incendiary headline that feeds into the already existing firestorm about Trump and Russia.
This is what the President means when he says fake news – when the mainstream media spins stories and editors write headlines to grab clicks and sell papers with little regard for what the actual story is, what the truth is, and what the impact will be. Then they huff and puff when he has the audacity to criticize them, claiming he’s trying to undermine public faith in the First Amendment.
He isn’t doing that. They are. Every time they go for the cheap shot to sell papers and advertising instead of being fair.
This, frankly, is exactly why polling indicates fewer people trust the media than trust the President – and that’s not fake news.