Alternative Fact of the Week: Redefining "fake"

Redefining reality is what “alternative facts” are all about, and nobody does it better than President Donald Trump. He isn’t simply “untethered to truth,” as James Comey likes to say, but is comfortable operating a long, long distance from it. So it was pretty safe to predict that when a controversial media watchdog’s claims of lopsided “negative” coverage of the president showed up on Mr. Trump’s favored “Fox & Friends” morning show on his favorite right-leaning TV network this week, a familiar train of thought was headed out of his Twitter account station.

Let’s see ... Negative coverage by the networks. What presidential phrase does that suggest? Fraught news? Fantastic news? Foremost news?

Oh, right, here it is from Wednesday at 7:38 a.m.: “The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?”

There are several relatively minor problems with Mr. Trump’s posting. The Media Research Center study found that 90 percent, not 91, of “evaluative comments” on four months of network coverage of Mr. Trump and “top” members of his administration were negative. Second, Mr. Trump’s approval ratings during the same period have actually edged up slightly, so whatever the perception of negativity, its impact is clearly modest. And third, Mr. Trump is constitutionally constrained from withdrawing credentials from network news — that darn First Amendment does get in the way of authoritarianism. Sad!

But all that is par for the course. The real nugget is in the parenthetical in which President Trump kindly explains to his Twitter followers that negative news is the same thing as fake news. Thus, under the Trumpian construction, every time a harsh word about him or his pals makes its way to an American TV set — the Trump tax cuts will raise the deficit (which they did), he paid off an adult film actress (initially denied, later admitted) or that the Russian government under Vladimir Putin’s direction interfered in the election (a subject Mr. Trump has danced around but has more recently admitted to, sort of) to name a few — are fake when they obviously are not.

In this, President Trump follows a classic pattern of populist politicians and their most devoted followers who dismiss any criticism as fake, forged or phony. Sometimes, it’s a cynical tactic, and sometimes it’s the blindness to objective reality associated with egotists and fanatics. With the Trump crowd, it might be a bit of both. Conversely, it’s simply the nature of news coverage, whether on networks or most any other outlet, to report the “negative.” The sun coming up in the morning isn’t news. The earthquake that wipes out half the city is. See the difference? Television is particularly susceptible to covering stories that have an emotional — and visual — punch to them. That’s why a video of a Carroll County deputy shooting a groundhog is going to get some serious airplay across the country while debates about pension fund management fees won’t set cable or even YouTube on fire.

We have no doubt that there’s more critical coverage of President Trump on a day-to-day basis than there was of his predecessors, but exactly whose fault is that? Here’s a president who brags about grabbing women’s private parts, who embraces the support of white supremacists, who uses the most childish constructions to ridicule his political opponents, who lies more often than a middle-schooler with a homework aversion, and who is the subject of a special counsel’s investigation.

Here’s the good news. Americans are becoming so inured to the president’s act, his claims of victimhood and conspiracies, his lies and reversals, his self-love and coarse attacks on his critics, that the term “fake news” holds practically no meaning. So, sure, let criticism of Mr. Trump be regarded as the same thing as fake news. It’s all just shtick and meaningless patter. News gatherers worth their salt will keep reporting the real news, and Mr. Trump will keep attacking them for it — while often later admitting that it was all correct.

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