Last month, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year. The phrase was all the rage during and after both Brexit and the U.S. presidential election.
This is especially relevant to those of us in the media. Because the American public’s propensity to only consume “news” that aligns with their personal philosophy has evolved at a time when traditional news sources have been targeted by our president-elect. Don’t want any troublesome interference from folks fact-checking your message? Shoot, or at least discredit, the messenger. It’s an effective tactic. Just ask Joseph Goebbels, German politician and head of the Nazi propaganda machine, who over the course his career said the following:
• “ ... the rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious.
• A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.
• It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”
The Nazis had a name for the people who threatened to shine a light on their horrific goals — “Lügenpresse” or lying press. It was a racial slur as well, as Nazi’s pushed the notion that all members of the media were Jews and were genetically prone to lying. It successfully destroyed any news institution’s ability to educate the German people about the reality of what Hitler and his storm troopers were doing until it was much too late.
Our president-elect recently tweeted, “If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to tweet. Sadly, I don’t know if that will ever happen!” As a voracious consumer of political news from a variety of sources and viewpoints, I can say with confidence that when the media reports something the Donald has said, there’s evidence. Sometimes even a voice recording. The media hasn’t needed to sensationalize or manufacture scandal with this guy. He sends it through the ether in 140-character tirades. Trump and his pal Steve Bannon, along with Bannon’s former media stomping ground Breitbart, are pushing the narrative that the media as a whole is untrustworthy while simultaneously disseminating falsehoods of their own.
All political operatives employ what late night television host Stephen Colbert coined “truthiness” to support their agenda. That phrase refers to the tendency of people to believe claims lacking evidence to back them up, because they just “feel right.” But the incoming administration goes far beyond just massaging the truth. And while there are partisan outlets catering to ideologies on both sides of the aisle, never before has someone tapped to assume the mantle of President of the United States of America circulated misinformation.
President-elect Donald Trump retweeted a 16-year-old boy who attacked CNN for calling one of Trump’s assertions false. Trump had tweeted, “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Trump’s people have said on news shows that a four-year-old Pew Research Center study supports the notion that millions of people vote illegally in this country. However, when read in its entirety, the study concludes the following:
• Approximately 24 million—one of every eight—voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.
• More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters.
• Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state.
The report did not conclude that 1.8 million deceased people actually voted, only that voter registration systems need to be upgraded. And Trump’s party is in the position to do just. Republicans oversaw voting in the past election in most states.
Trump’s claim doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, which has required his representatives to perform some impressive linguistic contortions. On a Sunday talk show, in defense of the lack of evidence backing Trump’s claim, VP elect Mike Pence referred to the Pew study. But when pressed on what the study actually concluded, he backpedaled and instead defended the claim thusly, “ Well, look, I think he’s expressed his opinion on that. And he’s entitled to express his opinion on that. And I think the American people — I think the American people find it very refreshing that they have a president who will tell them what’s on his mind” ... “he’s going to say what he believes to be true and I know that he’s always going to speak in that way as president.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was less evasive, and perhaps even more alarming, in his response. In a “60 Minutes” interview, Ryan acknowledged that he was unable to prove Trump’s claim. “I have no way of backing that up. I have no knowledge of such things,” he said.
When the reporter continued questioning whether outright lies were appropriate from the incoming president, Ryan said, “It doesn’t matter to me. He won the election.” He later added, “Who cares what he tweeted, you know, on some Thursday night, if we fix this country’s big problems?” he added. “That’s just the way I look at this.”
Speaker Ryan, I care. Because:
• Words have consequences. For example, a completely baseless rumor has been disseminated on social media about Washington, D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. According to a fake news item, Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, have been operating a child sex ring out of the basement of the restaurant. It is difficult to imagine someone believing this. But lots of someones did … including a 26-year-old man who fired his AR-15 into the place based on the rumor. Luckily, no one was injured. But the owner, who confirmed the restaurant has no basement from which to operate a sex ring, and his staff, are still being targeted and have had to close up shop for a bit. It would be easy to dismiss this as a one-off. Yet Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor Michael Flynn tweeted a link to this fake news item. Let that sink in. National. Security. Advisor. Trump’s transition team acknowledged this was not acceptable. So, following their unique logic, they fired Flynn’s son.
Leaders of the most powerful nation in the world should not help spread mis-or-disinformation created by white nationalist websites or 16-year-old boys. They also should not respond to criticism on social media. When you throw your hat in the ring for the highest office in the land, you open yourself up to negative responses to your words and actions. We need our President to attend security briefings, not yell at actor Alec Baldwin and the cast of Hamilton on Twitter.
• Words give hope. Indianapolis union leader, Chuck Jones, who represents the Carrier workers, knows this from recent experience. When President-elect took to social media to crow about the 1,200-plus jobs he demanded Carrier keep in the U.S., there was a lot of relief among union members who had been facing unemployment.
When those numbers were found to be fairly off the mark, there was renewed heartbreak. Jones told the Washington Post in an interview that Carrier agreed to keep 800 jobs. But 350 of the jobs in Trump’s total were engineering positions Carrier never planned to move. Jones said that exaggeration or miscalculation led 550 of his members on an emotional roller coaster ride. Trump’s response to Jones doing math in public was two tweets: “Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!” and “If United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they would have kept those jobs in Indiana. Spend more time working-less time talking. Reduce dues.”
• Words lead to perceptions, which, in turn, shape decisions. And creating policies based on problems that don’t exist has a way of sneaking up to bite you in the Constitution. If the media is unable to function freely, there will be no way for Americans to hold those they elect accountable. Since Trump’s campaign began he has threatened to sue journalists or news organizations at least a dozen times.
I’m one of hundreds of people with access to the public through media to write about this. And responses to other editorials along the same vein often blast the writer as being hysterical or overstating the consequences of these attacks on media. We all know it’s absurd to label all of Trump’s supporters as white supremacists. In fact, nearly everyone I know voted for him. People I break bread with and interview and see at Kroger. They are good people who, for the most part, chose him despite the racist and misogynist rhetoric. They are people I admire and like.
Equally, the notion that everyone in the media is lying is absurd. It is illogical to brand an entire industry as dishonest or acting as a monolith under a shadowy overlord with nefarious intentions. As an American citizen, I’m not thrilled with the results of this election. But as a member of the media, I understand that this goes far beyond who won and who lost. It’s my job to raise a red flag when something’s not right. I’m raising that flag now because every example of disingenuousness I’ve listed in this piece — all of which have published documentation, video and/or audio to back them up — will likely still be construed by many as a product of the Lügenpresse.
We’ve entered uncharted waters here in the U.S. But these waters are very familiar to citizens in other places like Nazi-era Germany, and present day Russia, North Korea, and China. Were I to humor my darker fears, I could imagine a day when the only “news” we get is from TRUMP Television. (It’s yuge! It’s tremendous! It’s TRUMP TV!) The concerted effort to discredit the media will only produce negative outcomes. And those consequences, which will outlive the incoming administration, are likely to do far more damage to our nation than any one president can.
If you are interested in vetting a news item for validity, the following NPR link is useful.
If you want to chat, share a story idea with me or even holler (yell at me in all capital letters), drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.