I came across the phrase “false news” in a most unexpected setting the other day and it led my thoughts down some intriguing corridors.
The concept is better known in the Trumpian era, of course, as “fake news.”
“False” and “fake” aren’t synonyms, to be sure.
False simply means untrue.
But branding something as fake adds the element of intention to the misstatement and eliminates the possibility of the error being of innocent origin. This is the key to Trump’s favorite epithet — and in my view the reason the president’s seemingly childish joy at leveling the charge is so, well, childish.
Mr. Trump implies that media reports which contain mistakes were concocted purposely, and with the sole goal of impugning him and his administration.
As a minor media practitioner myself, I find this allegation ludicrous, and a bit silly.
A news organization’s reputation depends on accuracy far more than, say, a politician’s.
Newspapers and TV networks don’t invent stories for a reason that Trump of all people ought to understand instinctively — there’s no money in it.
It saddens me, though, that some of the nation’s most hallowed newsgathering operations during Trump’s short tenure have slid so many rhetorical arrows in his anti-media quiver.
CNN’s recent retraction of a story claiming the Senate was investigating a Russian bank linked to a Trump ally is but the latest example — and perhaps the most prominent, since the episode led to three CNN journalists resigning.
CNN also retracted a story in early June that predicted — wrongly — what fired FBI Director James Comey would testify to during a congressional hearing.
CNN’s high-profile failings spawned the inevitable eruption of hysterical tweets from Trump.
This trend toward shoddy reporting depresses me not because journalists have suddenly discovered a latent talent for lying — they haven’t — but because Trump, whose public abhorrence of the press is unprecedented among presidents in the modern media era, should spur reporters to be more diligent than ever.
Instead, some of my colleagues seem to be treating traditional standards of verifying facts and vetting sources as shackles rather than as absolute requirements.
I fear that some of my profession’s most acclaimed members have taken on the misguided notion that their ultimate goal is to topple Trump’s presidency, not to gather and report facts without passion or prejudice.
Which is to say that the president is playing them for fools.
He’s goading journalists into making mistakes that would earn an “F” in Reporting 101.
This is particularly frustrating to me because if there’s substance to the blizzard of theories about Trump, then the truth will eventually be revealed by journalists who employ proven methods. The impatient and the sloppy will end up writing retractions and, potentially, collecting unemployment.
The notion that Trump could permanently hide a single nefarious plot, much less a bunch of them, is laughable. If Richard Nixon, who probably had more political acumen before he shaved the first time than Trump will ever have, couldn’t survive a petty scandal such as Watergate, then Trump, if he actually has committed some dastardly deed involving Russia and fixed elections, is as helpless as a newborn.
Ultimately the Trump era will be defined as either a triumph or a failure of journalism.
And this result, I believe, will have more lasting repercussions for our country than Trump, or indeed any president, will have. They change every four or eight years. But the media’s role remains.
Which brings me back to where I started, with that reference to “false news.”
It’s from a 2008 nonfiction book by Mark Thompson, “The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-19.”
Thompson focuses on the experiences of the Italian Army during the First World War. The “false news” citation comes in the chapter in which Thompson describes how the Italian military censored not only the press, but also mail service and telephone and telegram lines during the war.
Thompson writes that a law passed on May 22, 1915, allowed the Italian government to confiscate any publication which officials branded as “gravely prejudicial to the supreme national interests,” as well as the publication of “military information not from official sources.”
On June 20, 1915, the government issued a decree which banned “false news.”
The term snagged my eyes as they slid across the page not because the situation in wartime Italy in 1915 seemed to me at all similar to the U.S. in 2017.
Rather, I was reminded of how vast the gulf is between a government official’s antipathy for journalists — even the unique disdain that is a hallmark of Trump’s presidency — and actual government censorship.
A journalist who tried to report the truth of the Italian Army’s disastrous attacks along the Isonzo River during the war — futile campaigns that killed tens of thousands of men for militarily worthless gains — would surely have failed at best. At worst he might have been imprisoned.
In today’s America, by contrast, a journalist might be the subject of one of Trump’s insulting tweets, jibes that perhaps would impress a sixth-grade boy who scores solid D’s in language arts.
But that journalist could respond, in a similarly public arena, without fear of official reprisal.
I can imagine how powerful the temptation is to do just that. And surely any competent reporter could craft a much more biting retort than Trump can muster — and spell all the words correctly besides.
But that’s a grim game, and the journalist who plays it will almost certainly lose.
The media’s only guaranteed ally is what it has always been — the truth.
If we seek the truth and ignore the meaningless cacophony from the Oval Office, we will begin to burnish our reputation, rather than continue to tarnish it.
The president can, and no doubt will, prattle on about “fake news” regardless.
But if the media can stop making avoidable mistakes, I’m confident that in the end it won’t be tweets but rather facts, beautiful in their purity and immune to demogoguery, that will forever define Trump’s tenure, for good or for ill.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.