“Who would not lie, when men are hanged for truth?”

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Is anyone else sick of Trump using the phrase “fake news”?

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It seems that he has declared war on the media, describing various news outlets as “the enemy of the people”; he is either unaware of the sorts of leaders who have used this sort of phrase in the past, or he is involved in a ruthless and Machiavellian scheme to seize power and deny any story that is not his own. I am usually more inclined to see ineptitude than conspiracy, but either way, this is a worrying development.

A free press is a necessary foundation for democracy. The media have an essential role to play in holding politicians to account, and to undermine that is to undermine democracy itself.

“Fake news” is a pretty big accusation to throw around. I gather that he intends it to mean wilfully misleading the public with untruths – i.e. deliberately lying in order to promote their own political agenda. I don’t deny that almost all media companies have an agenda. Media bias exists – and there are almost always ‘angles’ that are taken on stories. Does that make the content “fake”?

Media outlets sometimes mess up or mislead. They might take statements out of context, or use unreliable sources. They might allow their agenda to lead the story, rather than provide an angle on it. They might need to print retractions if they are proved wrong. They can be sued for getting it wrong. As a result, there are usually scrupulous processes that writers go through, in order to protect their reputations and their businesses.

Actual “fake news” does exist of course, in clickbait pieces and in deliberately misleading propaganda. But I don’t think that’s what Trump is talking about. For him, anything that contradicts the narrative he has constructed for himself is branded “fake”. And that is dangerous.

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Let’s examine how media bias works. The events themselves might be neutral, but the bias often shows itself in the language – the emotive adjectives used to describe events, for example. Bias can reveal itself in the references to expert opinions – who is selected to provide their point of view? Is that person a reliable and credible source? If there is a picture of them, has this been chosen to make them look sensible or silly? Opinions can be presented as facts – any teenager who has studied persuasive writing know how to do this. And bias can also reveal itself in what is selected as ‘newsworthy’ and what is not.

Let’s not confuse bias with political independence, though. News outlets might have to report inconvenient truths, or provide stories that are not flattering, and not particularly kind. As much as the President might not like this, it is actually their job.

Journalists are also required to fact-check politicians. And that is something that is apparently much more necessary right now, as, let’s face it, some of the most egregious and ridiculous examples of fake news seem to be coming directly from the White House press team, or from Trump’s Twitter account.

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Here’s an older example, but still a classic: Trump denied climate change- and then denied denying it. With such a deliberately flexible and inconsistent understanding of facts, is he really a competent ‘arbiter of truth’?

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What is the alternative? State-controlled media? Are we all looking forward to lots of stories about the emperor’s new clothes?

I wondered earlier in this piece whether this was just inept or Machiavellian, and for me, the jury is still out. If it is a long-game plot to undermine the media and secure unquestioned power, then it is essential that journalists keep doing their job. If it is incompetence instead, well, Trump is being very optimistic indeed in starting his 2020 campaign. He is bringing his party into disrepute, and if that’s the case, I suspect he won’t be permitted to continue for long.

So Mr Prez, if you are reading this (as if!), instead of complaining about the media, just do your job. If you feel you are being treated unfairly, let your actions speak for themselves. Close scrutiny comes with the job, I’m afraid. You may as well make peace with that now.

When news sources fact-check you and reveal that you are telling untruths, do not claim that you have “alternative facts” because that’s not a thing. Just admit your mistake. Thank the press for keeping you honest. Engage with journalists. You are all trying to make an honest living, right?

A word to the media: look, I know you want to deal with these accusations head-on, but you run the risk of falling into a Bannon-trap. Don’t let these unsubstantiated allegations get in the way of you doing your job. This may well be sleight of hand – drawing your attention to one battle, to distract you from the greater war. Bannon is probably trying to pick a fight with you. Don’t fall for it.

And a word to the public: if you are concerned about whether something is “fake news” or not, there’s a handy guide below.

Peace and love x

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