President Donald Trump is right. There is an epidemic of “fake news” in America. Only it’s being perpetuated not by his political opponents but by him and his supporters.
This was made evident when the Washington Post published an account of how a Trumpkin named James O’Keefe, who runs the deceptively named Project Veritas, tried to fool its reporters by sending their way a woman who claimed she had been impregnated as a teenager by Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore and had subsequently gotten an abortion. O’Keefe hoped to expose the Post to ridicule if it published this tall tale and thereby discredit its ground-breaking reporting on would-be Senator Moore’s pursuit of underage girls. But the Post didn’t fall for his scam, thereby showing how rigorous its reporting is.
O’Keefe has a long history of running such laughably inept “sting operations” that seek to expose supposed leftist bias in various institutions. His biggest success to date has been relieving gullible conservative donors of their dollars — money that would better be spent teaching young conservatives how to do actual shoe-leather reporting.
But O’Keefe is only one small part of the “fake news” industry that includes outlets such as Infowars, Breitbart, and Fox News. They propound crazy conspiracy theories such as the claim that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee was not done by the Russians, as the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, but rather by a staffer named Seth Rich who was conveniently killed — and therefore cannot clear his name. Some Trump supporters even went so far as to claim that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was running a Satanic child sex-abuse ring out of a Washington pizza parlor — a made-up allegation that led a North Carolina man to show up at the pizzeria in question with a very real semi-automatic assault rifle.
Trump himself contributes to this perpetual-motion B.S. machine by concocting wild claims about how he was supposedly wiretapped by former President Barack Obama or about how Hillary Clinton supposedly gave away our uranium to Russia. Neither story is remotely true, but that doesn’t stop the Trump echo chamber from faithfully spreading it.
Trump, in turn, pays back his sycophants by retweeting their work favorably to his 43.5 million followers. On Saturday, he thanked a website called MagaPill that is a one-source stop for nutty conspiracy theories such as “false flag terrorism,” “organ harvesting,” and “earthquake machines.” As ThinkProgress noted, “Just a few hours before being endorsed by Trump, MagaPill posted a video from Liz Crokin, a fringe figure best known for pushing the Pizzagate conspiracy. In the video, Crokin claims there is a sex tape of Hillary Clinton with an underage girl on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.”
On Wednesday morning, Trump hit another low when he retweeted videos posted by a British fascist leader showing purported Muslim atrocities. All of the videos are hateful and at least one is an outright hoax: It turns out the supposed “Muslim migrant” beating up a “Dutch boy on crutches” was neither a migrant nor a Muslim. Naturally Trump didn’t bother to perform even an elementary fact-check before disseminating this vile anti-Muslim propaganda. For an encore, Trump recklessly insinuated that TV host Joe Scarborough might be guilty of murder because sixteen years ago, when he was still in Congress, a woman died of natural causes in his district office.
Trump’s brazen assault on the truth naturally goes hand in hand with his assault on the “MSM” (mainstream media), which tries to tell the truth as best as it can. Trump has labeled the free press “the enemy of the American people,” and he has launched vitriolic attacks both on individual journalists such as Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski and on specific news organizations such as the “failing New York Times” and the “Amazon Washington Post.” On Nov. 25, he lashed out at CNN, whose international coverage he presumably saw while traveling in Asia: “@FoxNews is MUCH more important in the United States than CNN, but outside of the U.S., CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!”
Trump is quickly undoing America’s traditional role as a champion of free speech and free press in the world. He sounds very much like an authoritarian, even if he lacks the power of one, and actual authoritarians are cheered by his words.
Just hours before Trump’s tweet, Russian President Vladimir Putin had mandated that certain U.S. media outlets, including possibly CNN International, had to register as foreign agents. This was done in retaliation for a Justice Department decision to force RT, which is a Kremlin propaganda organ, to register as a foreign agent in the United States. Like other despots, Putin is eager to erase the distinction between state and independent media and between objective true and the official party line — and Trump is helping him to achieve those nefarious objectives.
Trump’s anti-media rhetoric also found an echo in Egypt, which, like Russia, is a dictatorship that regularly imprisons journalists. A spokesman for Egypt’s foreign ministry tweeted Sunday: “As usual, deplorable @CNN coverage of Sinai tragedy today. Anchor more interested in reporters access to Sinai than in those who lost their lives !!!” Egypt keeps the media out of the Sinai Peninsula so as to avoid any reporting on the brutality inflicted by its army on the populace — and Trump is presumably just fine with that.
The Libyan government likewise borrowed from Trump’s playbook in pushing back against an amply documented CNN report about slave auctions operating in that country. Al Aan TV reporter Jenan Moussa noted that “Libyan media is questioning authenticity of CNN’s slavery report after tweet by President Trump calling CNN international ‘a major source of (Fake) news.’”
It is hard to be truly outraged by Trump anymore, given his daily track record of transgressions, but it is important that we not lose our capacity for outrage lest we start to accept the unacceptable. And it is simply unacceptable for an American president to be giving effusive comfort to despots who restrict the basic freedoms that countless American soldiers gave their lives to secure. “If this is who we are or who we are becoming, I have wasted 40 years of my life,” wrote retired Gen. Michael Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency and CIA. “Until now it was not possible for me to conceive of an American President capable of such an outrageous assault on truth, a free press or the first amendment.”
The question is whether Trump’s assault is merely rhetorical or whether he is actually engaged in payback against his perceived enemies in the press. Trump has threatened to loosen libel laws to silence journalists he doesn’t like and to institute internet taxes so as to punish Amazon because its chief executive happens to own the Washington Post. While he hasn’t made good on those threats, his Justice Department is now attempting to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, whose properties include… CNN. Justice’s Antitrust Division insists its decision has nothing to do with the president, but it is curious, to say the least, that a pro-business administration would seek to stop a merger between two companies that don’t compete against each other using a controversial antitrust theory last invoked in the Carter administration.
The Justice Department decision has fostered suspicions that Trump is trying to force a sale of CNN, perhaps into the hands of a friendly media mogul. It will not have escaped his notice that Meredith Corp. just bought Time Inc. with funding from the Koch Brothers. There is now speculation that Time magazine might be sold to the pro-Trump owner of the National Enquirer.
That we even have to worry about whether the president is misusing his authority to retaliate against media organizations he doesn’t like shows what a dire situation we are in. Never have we had a president so hostile to the First Amendment.
In fairness, Trump’s ham-handed attacks have mostly backfired by driving increased subscription to the New York Times, Washington Post, and other targets of his ire. But even if Trump doesn’t succeed in making media organizations pay a price for their independent reporting, he is further delegitimizing their work and undermining any chance that Democrats and Republicans will ever again be able to agree on a commonly accepted set of facts. In Trump’s world, truth does not exist — or, rather, the truth is whatever the supreme leader (or some surrogate like Sean Hannity or James O’Keefe) says it is. That is a very dangerous, destabilizing development for the future of American democracy.