Over the past few days, President Donald Trump has been ramping up his attacks against journalism, while at the same time holding up Sinclair Broadcasting, which is far from the ideal of journalistic independence.
The expression — fake news — has become so ubiquitous in the Trump era that one could be forgiven for thinking that it refers to a fact of life: The sky is blue, water is wet and anything which criticizes the president is "fake news." But there is an irony to Trump's decision to accuse media outlets of being "fake news." After all, the story they were covering involved how Sinclair Broadcasting has purchased local news channels and forced its on-air personalities to insert right-wing editorial commentary into their broadcasts.
"The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media," the script forced upon local news outlets read. "More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first."
This is a situation in which Trump accused the mainstream media of being "fake news" because they had called out conservatives for promoting "fake news" — right?
Well, not exactly. Because whether you like it or not, there is a difference between journalism you dislike, or even journalism that has an ideological agenda, and actual "fake news."
"You can't draw a simple line between 'I just report the facts' versus 'I'm totally partisan and I'm gonna push, you know, a sort of bias,'" Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward of the University of British Columbia told Salon. "There's all kinds of great media in between. Investigative media, engaged journalism and so on. So we need a much more sophisticated way of thinking about types of media than the old way of either you're totally objective or you're not."
But that opens up a big problem for Trump.
Sinclair Broadcasting owns 193 local news stations and, if it succeeds in its plan on taking over Tribune Media, it will own 233 local news stations across the country. This gives it a scope that certainly rivals and arguably surpasses those of cable news stations like CNN and MSNBC, which Trump has attacked on a regular basis. But Sinclair is also a decidedly pro-Trump company — its executive chairman, David Smith, told New York Magazine, "I must tell that in all the 45 plus years I have been in the media business I have never seen a single article about us that is reflective of reality especially in today’s world with the shameful political environment and generally complete lack of integrity. Facts and truth have been lost for a long time and likely to never return."
And so, the president has given it a pass.
Just as a journalistic work isn't necessarily "fake news" just because it has a bias, so too is it not necessarily "fake news" simply because it has reporting errors (as PolitiFact noted when judging Trump's "fake news awards" in January, there is a difference between honest mistakes and deliberate deception). Similarly, there is a difference between "fake news" and news that someone finds offensive because its take on a given subject runs counter to their own preferred narrative.
Regardless of what Trump and his supporters prefer to believe, "fake news" is a term that refers to a very specific type of reporting.
"In general what I would consider 'fake news' is information that purports, that presents itself as conveying factual information about the world, about reality, that is in fact not factual, is not real," Susan McGregor, an assistant professor at Columbia Journalism School, told Salon. "And I think that obviously what we've seen in the last year or so is the politicization of that term used as a label to mean anything that a person doesn't like or disagrees with. And so, you know, obviously those are two different things: I can dislike something that is factually true, but that doesn't mean that it's fake."
In the past, McGregor observed, the type of journalism that would be labeled as "fake news" was the fare you might see in supermarket tabloids — "fantastical stories about aliens and unusual births and things like that." What has changed in recent American history, however, is that we live in an "increasingly partisan environment." As a result, McGregor speculated that "what we see is a more fertile ground for attempting to manipulate narratives about more day-to-day reality than we might have seen in the past." People who dislike the facts or opinions reported by certain journalistic outlets don't simply seek to rebut them, but to delegitimize them entirely.
"If you have a society that's completely or very divided between Democrats and Republicans, between right-wing and left-wing, in fact even if the New York Times tomorrow would come out with a story that was factually not fake news, but actually very factual about some sort of Trump complicity in Russia and Russian affairs or whatever — most of the people, half of the people, the ideologues, would simply say, Well, that's just fake news from, what? From the liberal media!" Ward told Salon.
"And how we get around that, I don't know."
There are several dangers to our current overuse of the term. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that it allows large sections of the public to remain in denial about objective truths that they need to know in order to be fully informed citizens — such as about man-made climate change, for example, or the connections between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. Another is that it deepens our political polarization by empowering people to not just dismiss arguments they dislike, but demonize and delegitimize the individuals and institutions making those arguments.
Yet is there a solution to the problem of "fake news" being so overused? What can ordinary citizens do to make sure that they aren't suckered in by stories that are entirely baseless, such as the infamous Pizzagate conspiracy theory?
"A couple of things to think about and for people to do is: Rely on more of a wide spread mix of news sources instead of your own filter bubble or one source or two sources," Scott Talan, an assistant professor at American University's School of Communication, told Salon. "And this might be difficult for people, depending on the sources chosen, because no one wants to hear too many things that they don't agree with."
He added, "The other thing that can be done is by news organization is, don't rush. I used to work in TV news and remember all the time how often people in the news room would look at the competitors. We cared when competitors broke news. Most Americans and most people don't care one outlet broke something a minute before, an hour before or even a day before. They care about accurate reporting."
As Ward pointed out, journalistic outlets also need to accept that the term "fake news" has itself become so polarizing, so fraught with implicit political commentary, that it has lost its value as a neutral metric.
"We have to completely put this term aside and put a great big red line around it whenever we use it," Ward told Salon. "And it's just too easy now. Every politician who doesn't like the criticism coming from the media simply says, 'That's just fake news.' And what they're doing is appealing to their base who already think the media are biased."
Talan had a similar observation when discussing how the term has "won," at least when it comes to its potency as a political epithet.
"It almost doesn't matter what it actually means or what it really really means in the context of how often that term is used, to the point that students in my classes use the term," Talan told Salon. "So, in essence, the idea of framing when you adopt someone's words, phrase or language, 'fake news' has won. Where anything that you disagree with, or anything you think paints an unflattering picture, is 'fake news.' Even if it is accurate and true, it is 'fake news.'"
While it's tempting to blame Trump for this problem — and certainly he is more responsible than any other modern political figure for turning "fake news" into the catch-all insult that it has become today — it's important to remember that he isn't the first president to try to delegitimize the media.
Richard Nixon infamously dispatched his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to lambast the press in a 1969 speech that insisted there was a massive agenda out to destroy him, only for the Watergate scandal to ultimately vindicate his journalistic nemeses. On the other side of the fence, Bill Clinton and his supporters would frequently disparage right-wing media outlets that reported on his alleged sexual misconduct, even though in the post-#MeToo era it is clear that at least some of the questions they were asking deserved answers.
While politicians are uncomfortable being asked tough questions by journalists, it is incumbent upon all members of the public to support outlets that try to hold them accountable. This doesn't mean that there aren't news stories out there which are downright false, or ones which allow inevitable human biases to become so potent that they overshadow all other aspects of their reporting. Yet this is not what Trump and his supporters are complaining about when they denounce "fake news." Rather, they are upset that there are journalistic outlets which dare cover stories which the president finds inconvenient, whether about his campaign's alleged collusion with the Russian government or any other subject.
When that happens, the only thing "fake" about the "fake news" is the ostensible good faith of the individuals who are using that term most loudly.