A once-respected institution of American democracy, namely journalism, is in danger of passing through the looking glass, only to land in a menacing, topsy-turvy world, namely the White House Press Room under President Donald Trump.
It’s likely to be place where language will occasionally signify its opposite, and government spokespeople will declare, as Humpty Dumpty famously scolded Alice, “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
Thus the term “fake news”—the enduring catchphrase of the 2016 presidential campaign, initially used to describe made-up tales and internet hoaxes that tended to benefit Trump and damage Hillary Clinton—is fast becoming the nascent Trump administration’s rightwing-populist bludgeon to delegitimize the purveyors of real news.
Case in point: The president-elect’s Wednesday press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower—his first in six months—in which the future protector and defender of the Constitution, along with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, eagerly hurled the “fake news” epithet at Buzzfeed, CNN and presumably every other media outlet that dares to displease them.
“As a political technique, this is shrewd and cunning,” former CBS anchorman and White House correspondent Dan Rather told The Daily Beast. “When a story appears, and he doesn’t like it, he makes maximum use of it to take away its legitimacy by calling it ‘fake news.’”
The 85-year-old Rather, today the anchor of an eponymous AXS TV cable show, and a journalism blogger on Facebook boasting more than a million “likes,” added: “The best we can do is try to help make sure the public understands what’s going on. I’ve said it before: This is gut-check time for American journalists.”
Future White House communications director Spicer set the noxious “fake news” tone in his introduction of Pence. Taking the stage, he bitterly complained about Buzzfeed’s decision the previous evening to post a salacious and unverified dossier reportedly assembled by a retired British spy and purporting to detail Russian schemes to blackmail the next president over alleged misbehavior during a 2013 trip to Moscow, and CNN’s scoop that a two-page summary of said dossier was part of a classified intelligence briefing given separately last week to both Trump and President Obama.
“For all the talk about fake news, this is a political witch hunt,” Spicer claimed, calling the CNN and Buzzfeed reports “sad and pathetic attempts to get clicks,” not to mention “outrageous and highly irresponsible.”
Pence doubled down on the tendentious claim that the mainstream media is spreading “fake news,” which “can only be attributed to media bias…to demean the president-elect.”
“The American people are sick and tired of it,” Pence added.
But by far the most hostile moment came when CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta tried and failed to get Trump to call on him after the president-elect slagged off Buzzfeed as “a failing pile of garbage” and slammed CNN for “building it [the story] up.”
“Since you are attacking us, can you give us a question?” Acosta asked.
“Not you—your organization is terrible!” Trump answered.
“You are attacking our news organization, can you give us a chance to ask a question, sir?” Acosta persisted, interrupting Trump.
“Don’t be rude,” Trump ordered. “I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news!”
“Mr. President-elect, that’s not appropriate!” Acosta yelled back as the other reporters in attendance passively watched the battle, and Trump called on someone else.
Later, Acosta revealed on the air that right after the confrontation, Spicer threatened to toss him out of the press conference.
Rather’s own notorious 1974 set-to with Richard Nixon, during a press conference in Houston, with the besieged president, was a dainty tea dance in comparison to Acosta vs. Trump. “Are you running for something?” a smiling Nixon teased as an audience clapped and booed. “No, sir, Mr. President, are you?” a grinning Rather parried.
“The world has changed a lot since that night in 1974,” Rather said, noting that on Wednesday, the other reporters did next to nothing to back up their CNN colleague.
“Maybe this is asking too much,” he said, “but what if the next reporter Trump recognized said, ‘I give way to Mr. Acosta and his question’? But solidarity is not a word usually associated with us journalists.”
Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents Association, declined to comment on Trump’s press conference, but said his association’s “two main goals for this year”—admittedly a challenge—“are to maintain and increase access for journalists and to maintain and strengthen press corps unity.”
That unity may be tough to formulate in practice. While Shepard Smith of Fox News threw the channel’s support behind Acosta and CNN, on MSNBC Chuck Todd grilled an unrepentant Ben Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Buzzfeed, Todd insisting Smith had published ‘fake news.’
CNN’s Jake Tapper also sought to separate CNN’s coverage of Trump and Russian from Buzzfeed’s “irresponsible” journalism.
Rather said the exchange between Trump and Acosta was a harbinger of tough times for the newsbiz in general and the White House press corps in particular.
“It’s a difficult time for the press, and we’ll find out whether we have the guts to meet that challenge,” Rather said. “Donald Trump is an intimidator. And now he’ll be doing his intimidation with the Great Seal of the United States of America behind him, and it will carry extra weight. But good journalists, and owners and managers who have courage, won’t back away, back up, back down, or turn around.”
CNN, meanwhile, issued a statement defending its story, which the cable network called “carefully sourced,” against Team Trump’s onslaught.
“Given that members of the Trump transition team have so vocally criticized our reporting,” CNN said, “we encourage them to identify, specifically, what they believe to be inaccurate.”
Spicer didn’t respond to a text message from The Daily Beast seeking a response.
Meanwhile, the term “fake news” has been so effectively weaponized by conservative press critics, and its original meaning so perverted, that Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently argued that journalists should cease using it altogether.
“Fake news has a real meaning—deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public,” Sullivan wrote. “For example: The one falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, or the one alleging without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election.
“But though the term hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost. Faster than you could say ‘Pizzagate,’ the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”
Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, told The Daily Beast he agrees with Sullivan, a former Times public editor, and said he’s planning to ban the term “fake news” from the media columns of his paper.
“I never really liked the term—it’s an oxymoron,” Baquet said. “I think we should retire the term. It has become a shorthand for a whole range of stuff.”
Baquet conceded, however, that his decision will probably have negligible influence on the Trump White House. “I can’t control other people using it for their own ends, but I can do something about how we cover it.”
Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the influential Columbia Journalism Review, said it’s hardly surprising that Trump, who spent much of the campaign demonizing reporters, would take this practice into the White House.
“I think it’s outrageous, but if you look at it from the point of view of what he’s already done, this is the new normal,” Pope said. “We have to get our arms around the fact that the game being played has got to change. Now it’s demonizing the press, calling people names. sweeping away facts as ‘fake news.’ If the press’s response is ‘we’re going to proceed as if the rules are going to be the same,’ its’ going to find itself really frustrated and probably unable to do its job.”