What Donald Trump means by fake news is not the reporting of what’s materially false. It’s the reporting as true what only could be true. It could be true – because it would be perfectly understandable if it were – that “the President is becoming increasingly worried that the Mueller probe could lead to his impeachment.” If asked, of course he’d deny it. In fact nothing could falsify the claim that “the President is becoming increasingly worried that the Mueller probe could lead to his impeachment.” So CNN can with impunity report that “the President is becoming increasingly worried about” whatever CNN would like the President to become increasingly worried about. If he denies it, well he would, wouldn’t he?!
It’s the oldest political trick in the book. If a claim can’t be falsified it must be true. Prove that you didn’t have an affair with your secretary. Can’t? Then obviously you did. That’s what Trump means by fake news, and it’s that kind of fake news that we should all become increasingly worried about.
Fake news – what we used to call spin – isn’t harmless. Saddam Hussain could have had weapons of mass destruction. And though weapons of mass destruction is a media term, not a military one, his having them could be very serious. So yes, we do need to invade. All that CNN is proving is that what was fair game for the pro-Bush agenda in 2003 is fair game for the anti-Trump agenda today.
Here’s a related example. There’s been a terrible accident, and all the townspeople are in shock. How does the reporter know this? She can stop a townsperson on the street and ask the leading question, “You must be in shock. Are you?”, which is sure to elicit the desired answer, “Yes.” But were she to ask the non-leading question, “What are you in?”, I’m pretty sure no one is going to answer, “Shock.” Still, she can and will with impunity report that all the townspeople are in shock because it wouldn’t be unreasonable if they were.
Is anything added to our understanding of what’s going on in that town by our believing all its townspeople are in shock? Not a whit. But it elicits our solidarity with these hypothetical people-in-shock, and now our solidarity with them can in turn be reported on. And so on.
Am I saying all this to express my solidarity with poor misunderstood-because-misrepresented Donald Trump? Certainly not. Am I saying all this because I want the news to report the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? A fortiori not. In fact I’m having trouble picturing what that would look like.
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”
“Okay, then I’ll interview someone who can. Excuse me sir …”
“I just saw the World Trade Center come down before my very eyes.”
“And tell us, what was that like for you?”
“It was like seeing two very tall buildings come down before my very eyes.”
“Thank you, sir. Now back to you, Anderson.”
So the news isn’t there just to report what’s happening. It’s there to start a conversation about it. And to steer that conversation. To suppose otherwise isn’t naïve. It’s just false.
Few channels, and even fewer websites, take the trouble to announce what kinds of conversation they host. But most of us figure it out pretty quick. Fox News isn’t about balanced reporting, and neither is MSNBC. Birthright isn’t about your right to give birth, it’s about your duty to. False Flag Weekly isn’t a soapbox for your Islamophobia, but InfoWars is. But it’s important to know that neither is the best place to register your sympathy for the parents of the children who may or may not have been killed at Sandy Hook.
So has the media ushered in a new age of fake news? Nonsense. In the sense in which Trump means it, news has always been fake. But because it cannot but be fake, the term will eventually go the way of Liberty fries and every second word being “man”. Every facon de parler has a best-before date. The truly cool dude doesn’t get caught up in these fleeting fads.