CNN, according to President Donald Trump, is “fake news.” Any polls that reflect poorly on his executive orders on immigration and refugees are also “fake news,” according to the president. On Monday, his press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed a deeply reported New York Times story on power struggles within Trump’s White House as not just fake news, but “literally the epitome of fake news.”
That’s literally the epitome of a gross mischaracterization. You might even call it a lie. But some revealing recent statements by Trump officials suggest that’s the wrong way to look at it. In treating the Trump administration’s accusations of “fake news” as falsehoods, worthy of rebutting and debunking with evidence, the media may be playing into the administration’s hands.
It should go without saying that a co-bylined, 2,000-word, front-page New York Times story on the first weeks in Trump’s White House, headlined “Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles,” is not fake news, let alone the literal epitome of fake news. (The epitome of fake news would be something more like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” a fictional article published by a self-proclaimed “fantasy news website” that fooled hundreds of thousands of readers during the presidential campaign.) It is possible that the Times’ story contains inaccuracies, although neither Trump nor Spicer have pointed to any in particular. It would be fair to question the credibility of the many anonymous sources the Times relied on to flesh out its reporting. There are plenty of ways to criticize the New York Times, in other words—or CNN, or established polling organizations—that don’t involve calling them fake news, which is itself a patently false claim. So why are Trump and his deputies so stuck on that term?
An exchange between a conservative radio host and a Trump adviser this week—highlighted by CNN on Tuesday—yielded an interesting answer. Trump and his team of course know that CNN, the New York Times, and the rest aren’t actually fabricating news stories. What’s more, they aren’t actually trying to convince anyone otherwise. Rather, they’re hurling the term fake news as an insult to get under the media’s skin—and to distract from the substance of the stories themselves.
The surprisingly candid explanation came from Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to President Trump, in an interview with radio host Michael Medved. A former Breitbart editor, Gorka is no doubt familiar with the murky territory between fact, fiction, and propaganda on the internet. Pressed by Medved on why the Trump administration feels the need to label negative polls as fiction, rather than simply pointing to their fallibility, here is what Gorka said:
There is a monumental desire on behalf of the majority of the media—not just the pollsters, the majority of the media—to attack a duly elected president in the second week of his term. That’s how unhealthy the situation is. And until the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say “fake news.” I’m sorry, Michael. That’s the reality.
In other words, when Trump calls CNN or the New York Times “fake news,” he knows that what he’s saying isn’t true. It is, by at least some definitions, a lie. But I’ll stop short of calling it the literal epitome of a lie, because more careful definitions of the word require that a falsehood be made with the intent to deceive. I suppose it’s possible that Trump and his deputies hope to hoodwink some portion of the voting population into believing CNN and the New York Times actually make up news stories out of whole cloth. But it’s telling that Gorka and other Trump officials never actually try to make that case.
When Trump calls something “fake news,” he’s not making a claim about reality, or even his own perception of reality; he’s simply trolling the media. Like any good insult, fake news is a slur carefully selected to inflict maximum damage on its target. At a time when CNN and the New York Times are struggling to distinguish themselves from a flood of online competitors on the strength of their reporting and editorial standards, Trump is denying that they differ in any meaningful way from the lowest of tabloids. By jabbing the credibility of their reporting, he’s hitting them where it hurts.
Further insight came from Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway in an appearance Tuesday afternoon on Jake Tapper’s CNN show The Lead. After challenging Conway on Trump’s false claim that the media have failed to cover numerous terrorist attacks, Tapper asked her outright: “Are we fake news, Kellyanne? Is CNN fake news?” Conway’s response: “No, I don’t think CNN is fake news.” She then pivoted to specific examples of media reports that she found to be inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise unfair to Trump.
Conway’s response, and Gorka’s, seem to expose the president and his spokespeople as hypocrites, calling others liars even as they lie themselves. But once we see fake news for a slur rather than a diagnosis, the administration’s constant use of the phrase makes much more sense. It’s akin to Trump’s spluttering response to Hillary Clinton on the debate stage: “You’re the puppet.”
Insults are the last refuge of the rhetorical loser; they’re what’s left when you run out of logic and evidence. And yet they can be highly effective if their target rises to the bait, because they derail the conversation and distract from the topic at hand. Witness how much ink and airtime the media devoted Tuesday to proving that they covered the terrorist attacks the White House said on Monday that they never covered. When Sean Spicer calls CNN “fake news,” he’s changing the subject from Trump’s credibility to the media’s. Every minute that CNN spends defending its newsgathering operation is a minute spent away from the kind of original reporting that caused the administration to throw a hissy fit in the first place. It’s like if someone called you an asshole, and you responded by earnestly lecturing them on anatomy.
You might easily win that argument, just as Tapper succeeded in getting Conway to admit that CNN is not fake news. But winning arguments with White House staffers isn’t the media’s job. It only affirms Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s portrayal of the media as “the opposition party.” Rather, their job is to report—fairly, honestly, and aggressively—on the president and his most newsworthy words, deeds, and plans. With another president, false claims aimed at major news organizations’ credibility might well rise to that level. But with this one, there are far more important falsehoods to focus on.