How Dangerous Is President Trump's 'Fake News' Rhetoric?

07/22/2017 03:54 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2017
Fort Tilden Park, New York
Fort Tilden Park, New York

About midway through a boiling hot Sunday bike ride from downtown Brooklyn to the beach at Jacob Riis Park, talk among three friends turned to President Donald Trump's colorful relationship with the press.

"Of course his diehard supporters eat up the “fake news” claims," said one friend who dismissed any worry since he claims vast swaths of the public never trusted the press in the first place. But the other cyclist said the president could do some lasting damage. With his dumbed-down tweets, Trump condescends to his followers, he makes enemies of the press and vilifies the system of checks and balances the press provides.

Then he contradicts his taunts by sitting for an extensive interview with one of his biggest targets, The New York Times, one of five he's done with that paper since he got elected. So much for not paying the press any mind. I reminded the other two that in May, Times CEO Mark Thompson said in the first quarter after Trump's election, the paper added more than 300,000 subscribers. Similar spikes in circulation have been reported at The Washington Post and other outlets.

On cable news, left-leaning MSNBC and right-leaning FOX News have seen ratings skyrocket. According to data from Nielsen, MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show ended May as the number-one show in all of cable news among viewers 25-54.

Public Opinion on the wane

Nonetheless, public opinion of the mainstream media is at a low point, and it has been for years. A September 2016 Gallup poll found that Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" had dropped to its lowest level in the organization's polling history, with just 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media—down eight percentage points from the past year.

What happens to society when vast swaths of its people doubt the veracity of fact-driven reporting because the news that story contains conflicts with their political sensibilities?

I decided to reach out to a few political and media experts to gather thoughts about the state of news and where fact-based truths might be headed in Trump's America.

Preface it all with this. A May 2017 report on News Coverage of Donald Trump's First 100 days from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy says Trump has "received unsparing coverage for most weeks of his presidency, without a single major topic where Trump’s coverage, on balance, was more positive than negative, setting a new standard for unfavorable press coverage of a president."

The Shorenstein report points out that when Trump first announced his candidacy, journalists embraced him. He was a ratings bonanza for cable news.

Trump received far more coverage, and far more positive coverage, than did his Republican rivals. It was only after Trump surprised everyone, and won the nomination, that the media sharpened its scrutiny and his coverage turned negative. That was the moment Trump turned on the press.

But the report also charged that journalists should spend less time in Washington and more time in places where policy intersects with people’s lives.

If they had done so during the presidential campaign, the report says, they would not have missed the story that keyed Trump’s victory—the fading of the American Dream for millions of ordinary people.

Trump brought negative coverage on himself

Fast forward to today and the question is, has Trump brought on the negative coverage himself? Or is he the victim of a press determined to make him look bad?

"The fact that Trump has received more negative coverage than his predecessor is hardly surprising. The early days of his presidency have been marked by far more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory, perhaps ever," wrote Thomas E. Patterson Bradlee, professor of government and the press and author of the report from Harvard's Shorenstein Center.

Missteps indeed, but it is Trump's use of Twitter, his effective bypassing of the press by communicating directly with the public, that's unprecedented. Twitter has turned into this president's bull-horn of inaccurate White House propaganda. His crude take-downs, threats and his outright lies, have proven outrageous and silly, but relentless and must-read morning fodder. But they are clearly meant to sow doubts among his core supporters. In an already divided country where voters inhabit alternative political universes both on the ground and online, it remains to be seen what happens to a supposedly cohesive democracy if those doubts about reporting manifest themselves into collective dismissals of truth.

Revolution in Communications

"I think we're witnessing a communications revolution and Donald Trump is a part of that," said Jeremy Mayer, a professor at Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

We'll look back on this moment in the same way we do FDR communicating with fire-side chats on the radio and John Kennedy introducing the new medium of television into the presidency, he says.

"This president is harnessing social media in way that's really disruptive, and one of the things it's disrupting is trust in the media," said Mayer, who is also author of the book “American Media Politics in Transition.”

Mayer says we are in a new world. While previous presidents might have contemplated lambasting the press as fake news or espousing litanies of self-serving mistruths, they would have never gotten away with it. President Trump is doing what was previously unimaginable, and he's not paying a price for it.

The scariest aspect of all of this is a marked decline of faith in any kind of truth among large swaths of the country, according to Mayer.

He says philosopher Hannah Arendt, author of the 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” argued that totalitarians arise and thrive in a system where nothing is true, and everything is possible.

When a large segment of society starts to believe real truths can't be found, Mayer says, they tend to grow cynical about everything, and instead put their trust in one person, such as is the case in Vladmir Putin's Russia.

"Putin doesn't have to convince Russians that he's telling the truth, he just has to convince people that everyone else is a liar," Mayer said, adding "I'm worried about the corrosion of U.S. society's belief in the existence of truth itself."

The nation will have to come to a situation where the cost of not having trusted objective diviners of truth is shown to the public, Mayer said. He says a wrenching national trauma could help re-establish a collective desire for objective, truth-telling journalism among across the nation.

Mayer also draws a distinction between a liar such as Richard Nixon and a bullshitter like Donald Trump. A lie actually pays existence to a truth, because it tries to cover itself and disguise itself as truth, he says.

"But when Trump says things that are so obviously not true, such as my crowd was bigger than Obama's, it's not just a lie, it's bullshit. He just wants to sell you on the moment, the excitement, he doesn't actually expect for you to believe it; instead, it is a rallying point for his most fervent fans," said Mayer.

Fake News charges are troubling

Michael Artime is a visiting assistant professor of politics & government at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. He has done extensive research at the intersection of media and politics.

He calls President Trump's fake news charges and other attempts to undermine the credibility of the media "troubling."

"Given what we know about the way that individuals process information, this is dangerous to the future of the democratic process. Specifically, literature suggests that individuals process information in such a way that confirms their existing ideological predispositions—we filter the news through the perspective of our respective parties," said Artime.

That means Trump supporters are more likely to buy the claims of “fake news” in order to maintain the foundation of their belief in Trump.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

"As president, Jefferson had strong disagreements with the press, but recognized the importance and value of the media. The current president does not understand this or the true danger of his rants," says Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq., a professor of media law at Bentley University.

He says a healthy democracy depends upon an informed public, and when the public does not have trust in the media to keep them informed, it presents a clear and present danger.

True. But, Adelphi University journalism professor Mark Grabowski, also a former correspondent based in Washington D.C, doesn't blame the current president for the crisis of faith in today's journalists and media.

"The political press right now is extremely partisan and seems focused on pushing their own baseless narrative rather than reporting on the actual news," said Grabowski.

He argues that the news landscape is saturated by stories about Russia that are invariably based on unnamed sources. He says most Americans don't care about Russia.

"Russia isn't going to pay the mortgage, lower healthcare premiums or pay off student loans," said Grabowski.

Adam Chiara, a professor of communications at University of Hartford, picks up the same thread, saying the administration is playing to its base when it lambasts reporters.

"Most Americans are worried about their family and how they are going to make it another week. They don't have time to study what is happening with the media and the president," Chiara says.

The concept of “fake news” is a fairly new phenomenon. But distrust in the media is hardly anything new, says Andrew Selepak, a professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida.

He says the rise of non-traditional online "news sources" that are openly partisan has created safe places where individuals can retreat into echo chambers where everyone else shares the same political values.

"The decline of solid, well reported local newspapers combined with trends among young people only consuming news media that reinforces their own beliefs is a real danger," says Selepak.

Selepak teaches courses on news writing, news reporting, and sports reporting. He says his students do not read the newspaper. They don’t watch or read local news. They mostly get their news from Twitter and Facebook.

"But the news outlets they follow on Twitter are the ones that promote stories and editorial content that supports their beliefs and they take this as objective reporting. And the stories they see on Facebook are the ones shared by their friends who often hold their own political ideologies," said Selepak.

While the Trump administration may be exacerbating the situation, he says many Americans have already retreated into their own political camps of news and do not venture from them.

"I encourage my students who watch MSNBC to turn on FOX News, and students who watch FOX News to turn on MSNBC, at a minimum," said Sepelak who says by doing so, they at least gain some exposure to differing political viewpoints.

The lost swath of America

Leonard Jacobs is the founder and executive editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, a publication that covers the crossroads of arts and politics.

He says creating "clouds of doubt" is what dictators do, but Trump already did that: it's what won him the election.

"And when that happened, what was smoked out of the American shadows was a loud, crass, vacuous, willfully under-educated minority that didn't believe the media to begin with and simply hungered for a savior," said Jacobs.

He tells me that the most unstinting Trump voters -- that core subset that detests and disbelieves media the most -- will never believe anything but whatever non-truth truth that got them to vote for Trump in the first place.

Days after that bike ride to the beach, I had another long conversation with a friend over some frozen margaritas. But all that cool icy goodness couldn't tame the flames of fear she shared with me. My friend agrees with Leonard Jacobs, in that Trump is creating clouds of doubt, just like a dictator does, and it falls right into his supporters’ vision of Trump as a savior.

"They are a lost cause," my friend argued.

In the lead up to the election, and the months that have followed, I've detected a growing sense of worry, woe and outright fear that our country has entered a very uncertain time as far as speaking truth to power.

My friends mostly agree that it would be foolish to assume that media outlets don't slant left and right. But the hope has always been that people are critical enough to sort through it all, and arrive at a truth themselves.

George Mason University's Jeremy Mayer says that in some ways, we're actually harking back to the partisan press era. He says the idea that newspapers are expected to strive for objectivity is a fairly new creation in US history.

"For most of American history, the media was expected to have an opinion," said Mayer.

Way back in the day during Thomas Jefferson's presidency, readers would know whether the news they were reading had come from a federalist newspaper such as the Gazette of the United States vs. the democratic, republican publication The National Gazette.

We may be heading back to an era where more and more outlets have a partisan identity, he says, adding that we survived that environment for decades.

That said, Mayer thinks there was and is a virtue to the 20th century goal of an objective press.

It's been said that public relations powerhouse Karen Kessler is the most sought-after woman in all of New Jersey—when something goes wrong. She is founder of Evergreen Partners, a public relations firm that specializes in crisis communications, reputation management, and litigation support. According to a 2010 profile in the Newark Star Ledger, her clients include large corporations and high-powered white-collar criminal attorneys with prominent, powerful clients of their own to defend.

Kessler believes something has gone wrong in America today.

"The President has lit a fire to personalize media, self-selecting ‘trusted’ news sources that provide only information we’re predisposed to accept as factual while disparaging or rejecting everything else," Kessler wrote in an email.

She says that when we disregard whole swaths of journalism, we are ultimately a less-informed society.

"That may be just what some public officials want. And that's a dangerous place for America," Kessler said.

That's the conversation I'll take up with my friends on our next bike ride to the beach on Sunday.

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