The real perils of Trump’s numbing ‘fake news’ routine

Unsubstantiated claims of fake news, threats to journalists’ access, a never-ending assault on the press. Well over a year into his presidency, Donald Trump’s attacks on the veracity of reporting and warnings to journalists about their ability to cover his administration have grown so routine that they hardly register as news.

Yesterday morning, Trump provided another in his litany of complaints, tweeting: “The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?”

There are a few things to unpack in that message. Before getting to the president’s musings about stripping reporters of credentials, it’s worth noting his explicit connection between negative coverage and “fake news.” That phrase used to have a specific meaning. It referred to completely fabricated stories, often produced for partisan reasons and blasted around social media to audiences hungry for information to confirm their preexisting biases. Trump, along with his supporters and political imitators, has through repetition transformed it into a catch-all for stories he simply doesn’t like.

That conflation of critical reporting and “fake news” may be the most troubling aspect of the president’s message, but the line that got the most attention yesterday was his suggestion that reporters be stripped of their credentials. During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s team occasionally blacklisted outlets ranging from The Washington Post to BuzzFeed to the Des Moines Register. To do so in office would be another escalation in the administration’s battle with the press.

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ABC News’s Cecilia Vega pressed Sarah Sanders over the president’s tweet during the White House briefing Wednesday, asking if the stripping of credentials was a line the press secretary would be unwilling to cross. Sanders dodged the question, arguing that the administration is “very committed to a free press.” Vega refused to relent, asking, “How is the suggestion of taking American journalists’ press credentials away advocating for a free press in this country?  Those two do not go together.” Sanders then accused journalists of a litany of offenses, including an erroneous description, later amplified by a Trump tweet, of a New York Times story on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

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The White House Correspondents’ Association, which has largely refrained from commenting on each attack from the president, issued a stern rebuke to yesterday’s tweet. “Some may excuse the president’s inflammatory rhetoric about the media, but just because the president does not like news coverage does not make it fake,” WHCA President Margaret Talev wrote. “A free press must be able to report on the good, the bad, the momentous and the mundane, without fear or favor. And a president preventing a free and independent press from covering the workings of our republic would be an unconscionable assault on the First Amendment.”

The regular onslaught of media criticism and complaints from the president can have a numbing effect on both journalists and the public. But Trump’s attacks, amplified by his cheerleaders on the airwaves, have the potential to do serious and lasting damage.

Below, more on the president and the press.

  • Private thoughts made public: CNN’s Brian Stelter and Kaitlan Collins report that Trump has “mused privately” about taking away reporters’ credentials throughout his time in office.
  • Fox influence, again: The Washington Post’s John Wagner notes that, shortly before the president’s tweet, Fox & Friends ran a segment discussing a study by the Media Research Center that cited Trump’s negative coverage.
  • Drudge’s view: “I fear the future result of Trump’s crusade on ‘fake news’ will be licensing of all reporters,” Matt Drudge tweeted. “The mop up on this issue is going to be excruciating.”
  • Ancient history?: In 2015, then-candidate Trump promised Time’s Michael Scherer (now at The Washington Post) that as president he would not take away credentials from outlets who produced negative coverage of his administration.

 

Other notable stories

  • NBC’s investigation into its handling of Matt Lauer’s workplace conduct found no fault with the company’s actions. The New York Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin write that questions remain about the network’s commitment to transparency, noting that the review was not conducted by an outside legal firm. Press Forward issued a statement criticising the investigation: “There needs to be an independent investigation for this to be credible. There is an inherent conflict of interest when management reviews itself.”
  • Former NBC journalist Linda Vester wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, explaining her decision to go public with allegations of harassment by Tom Brokaw. “I am not seeking a settlement, but neither will I be silent,” Vester wrote. “I want NBC to stop fighting #MeToo within its own walls. I ask NBC Universal to retain an outside investigator to look into sexual harassment and any coverup of sexual harassment at NBC News.”
  • Overnight, Trump travelled to Joint Base Andrews to greet three American prisoners freed from North Korea. The New York Times’s Katie Rogers reports that Trump turned to the assembled journalists and said, “I think you probably broke the all-time in history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning.”
  • CNN’s Hadas Gold and Oliver Darcy report that executives at Salem Media Group, which employs some of the nation’s top-rated talk radio hosts, pressured some of their talent to cover Donald Trump more favorably during the 2016 campaign.
  • Can National Review do more than preach to the choir? For CJR, Danny Funt looks at the conservative standard-bearer in a moment of transition, as it attempts to remake itself for a digital audience.
  • Writing in Vanity Fair, Snapchat’s Peter Hamby encourages journalists to learn from the belated coverage of the John Edwards scandal in 2008. “For the public and the press, our north star, even in moments of doubt, has to be the knowledge that it’s all probably worse than we think it is,” Hamby writes. “That’s always how political scandals work.”
  • For CJR, Philip Eil has an ode to the reporter’s notebook, the little slab of paper and cardboard held together by a corkscrew strip of metal that serves as shield, passport, and conversation starter.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.