The label “fake news” is thrown around a lot since its coining on the Trump campaign trail. Sometimes it’s used to distinguish gossip, opinion and commentary from actual journalism. Of course, those things aren’t news at all – fake or otherwise.
But sometimes the term “fake news” is applied to actual, verifiable facts that the labeler finds uncomfortable. If it’s provable, that’s not fake news. Period. Even here at the hyper-local level, The Chronicle has been occasionally accused of purveying “fake news.” We object. We struggle to find anything fake in our reports on selectmen's meetings, local music festivals and Cape League baseball games. (If you find errors of fact, we urge you to call us out on it, specifically.)
What's happened is that President Trump's use of the term to apply to any news reports he or his people think are negative or that they simply don't like has given wider permission for anyone to dismiss virtually anything as “fake news.” What's even more disturbing is that this is often done in reaction to the perceived ideology of the news outlet, with complete disregard for objective facts. To choose an example in the news this week, Trump Tuesday labeled reports on Omarosa Manigault Newman's new tell-all book “fake news,” even though it's totally legitimate to report on a book by a former White House insider, no matter what the book says.
The White House’s strategy comes straight from “1984.” In labeling the press as the “enemy of the American people” and calling reporters “sick and dangerous,” Trump is playing the role of propagandist and reality TV star, imposing his own “truth speak” on the public. By denigrating and heckling the press, he believes he will discredit legitimate media so that no one will believe them. It’s a slick way to suppress reports about some of the awful things he and his administration are doing.
This direct assault on the First Amendment undermines the very basis of our society. The Founding Fathers recognized that a free press was the best way to keep the power in check by shining a light on the activities of government and providing people with the information they need to make informed decisions. That's the role we have always seen ourselves as serving. We go to meetings of local boards and committees because our readers can't. We report seemingly mundane budget, zoning and other decision by town officials because they have real-life impacts. This is no different from what the New York Times or the Washington Post does, only those outlets operate at a more macro level.
Tarring one journalist or media outlet as an “enemy of the people” tars us all, because we are all trying to do the same thing: report the facts. President Trump's attack on journalism makes that difficult. When perception is skewed by ideology and propaganda, facts suddenly become negotiable.
Thus we are unmoored, and our society drifts into swift and dangerous currents. Journalism isn’t designed to be comfortable. It’s designed to keep us off the rocks.