Last December, Variety and other news outlets reported that Donald Trump planned to serve as an executive producer for “The Celebrity Apprentice” while he was President. Kellyanne Conway, appearing on CNN, defended the President-elect’s prerogatives, but the next day Trump tweeted that the story was “fake news.” Since then, he has tweeted about fake news more than a hundred and fifty times; on a single day in September, he did so eight times, in apparent frustration over coverage of his Administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. And, of course, Trump regularly invokes “the fake-news Russian-collusion story,” as he named it last summer. He has attacked coverage of the Russia investigation more than a dozen times on Twitter alone.
“One of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake,’ ” Trump said on Mike Huckabee’s talk show, in October. (In fact, the phrase “fake news” has been around for more than a century.) The President’s strategy has been successful, however, in at least one respect: he has appropriated a term that had often been used to describe the propaganda and the lies masquerading as news, emanating from Russia and elsewhere, which proliferated on Facebook, YouTube, and other social-media platforms during the 2016 election campaign. These manufactured stories—“pope francis shocks world, endorses donald trump for president,” among them—poisoned the news ecosystem and may have contributed to Trump’s victory.
Judging from the President’s tweets, his definition of “fake news” is credible reporting that he doesn’t like. But he complicates the matter by issuing demonstrably false statements of his own, which, inevitably, make news. Trump has brought to the White House bully pulpit a disorienting habit of telling lies, big and small, without evident shame. Since 2015, Politifact has counted three hundred and twenty-nine public statements by Trump that it judges to be mostly or entirely false. (In comparison, its count of such misstatements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is thirteen.)
The President also publicizes calumnies that vilify minorities. Last Wednesday morning, he outdid himself by retweeting unverified, incendiary anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right group. Through a spokesman, Prime Minister Theresa May responded that Trump was “wrong” to promote the agenda of a group that spreads “hateful narratives which peddle lies.” The following day, members of Parliament denounced the President, using such epithets as “fascist” and “stupid.” It was a scene without precedent in the century-old military alliance between the United States and Britain.
Trump’s tactics echo those of previous nativist-populist politicians, but his tweets also draw on the contemporary idioms of the alt-right. This is a loose movement, as the researchers Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis have written, best understood as “an amalgam of conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people” who express “a self-referential culture in which anti-Semitism, occult ties, and Nazi imagery can be explained either as entirely sincere or completely tongue-in-cheek.” Trump is no alt-right digital-news geek, yet his Twitter feed is similarly ambiguous. He seems to provoke his opponents for the pleasure of offending them, but when he is called to account he often claims that he was just joking. Sometimes he promotes conspiracy theories to insult personal nemeses, as he did last week when he tweeted baseless speculation about the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s connection to the “unsolved mystery” of an intern’s death.
The President’s tweets slamming CNN, the Times, NBC News, and other media organizations can be comical and weird, but they do serious harm. Last week, a Libyan broadcaster cited one of Trump’s tweets about CNN in an attempt to discredit a report by the network on the persistence of slavery in that country. And, when the leader of a nation previously devoted to the promulgation of press freedom worldwide seeks so colorfully to delegitimize journalism, he inevitably gives cover to foreign despots who threaten reporters in order to protect their own power.
At home, the Trump effect is more subtle, but corrosive. The First Amendment does not appear to be in existential danger; on the Supreme Court, Justices appointed by both Republican and Democratic Presidents endorse expansive ideas about free speech, even as they debate interpretations. Yet many of the rights that working journalists enjoy stem from state laws and from the case-by-case decisions of local judges. The climate that Trump has helped create may undermine some of these protections—for example, by prompting state legislatures to overturn shield laws that encode the rights of reporters to protect confidential sources.
Trump’s alignment with right-wing publishers, such as Infowars and Breitbart, some of which see Fox News as the old-school communications arm of an obsolete Republican establishment, reflects a broader fragmentation of the media. Amid the cacophony of the digital era, publishers and advertisers prize readers who are deeply engaged, not just clicking around sites. News organizations as distinct as the Times and Breitbart now think of their audiences as communities in formation, bound by common values. A more openly factional, political journalism need not portend the death of fact-driven, truth-seeking, fair-minded reporting. Yet excellent journalism typically follows a form of the scientific method, prioritizing evidence, transparency, and the replicability of findings; journalism grounded in an ideology can be discredited by the practitioner’s preëmptive assumptions.
Fortunately, in attacking the media Trump has in many ways strengthened it. This year, the Times, the Washington Post, and many other independent, professional enterprises have reminded the country why the Founders enshrined a free press as a defense against abusive power. Among other achievements, the media’s coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has made transparent the seriousness of its findings so far, and constrained the President’s transparent desire to interfere.
Last Friday, Mueller dropped his latest bombshell, a plea agreement with Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, who admitted that, in January, he lied to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s Ambassador to the United States. The court papers filed with Flynn’s plea lay out a story of how senior members of the Trump transition team asked Flynn to communicate with Russian officials on matters of U.S. foreign policy. The papers also contain a reference to a discussion that Flynn had with “a very senior member” of the transition team, a characterization that suggests that the list of names of who that may be is a short one. The chances that history will remember Mueller’s investigation of Trump and his closest advisers as fake news grow slimmer by the day. ♦