In Donald Trump's ever-escalating war against the mainstream news media as practitioners of "fake news," Time magazine has fed him a helpful morsel by violating an old competitive rule of journalism: Get it first, but first get it right
Time's cover showing a 2-year-old girl crying, apparently over being separated from her mother by U.S. immigration officials at the Mexican border, was an authentic photo. The problem was, according those officials, the daughter and mother were never separated, but instead were taken jointly into detention.
One may argue, as the photographer told CBS News, that "it shows a brief moment in time of a distraught little girl whose mother is being searched" that captured "part of a much larger story."
The magazine's chief editor, Edward Felsenthal, defended its use but then said he regretted the decision. The cover had the bawling 2-year-old looking up at a huge photo of Trump and bore the caption: "Welcome to America."
Not surprisingly, the president jumped on the magazine cover as a contrived distortion of the actual situation. An immigration enforcement agent told CBS that Time was using the photo "to symbolize a policy that was not the case with this picture."
The incident was a prime example of how this president with his savvy sense of public relations is able to press his case of "fake news" against mainstream journalism organizations that sometimes are careless, either out of haste or failure to stick to or discover the facts.
At the heart of Mr. Trump's political game plan is to discredit and demonize the most influential news organizations, either liberal or centrist on the political spectrum, who strive to hold him accountable for his fast and loose diversions from truth. He in turn pivots to outlets in his pocket such as Fox News to peddle his transparently self-serving versions.
In an American journalistic world that is more deeply and emotionally divided in years between advocates of active government and those want much less of it, news organizations (be they in print or electronic) are increasingly at each other's throats. Mr. Trump, either gleefully or bitterly, acts as ringmaster of the fake-news circus.
Perhaps to a greater degree now than since the Cold War era of Joe McCarthy and the Communism scare, today's America is being torn by racial, ethnic and even gender division in a Trump-led assault on our unique brand of active self-governing.
Trump has recognized and is seizing the opportunity to play these divisions to drive a stake into the spirit of common purpose and solidarity that brought this country through two world wars with a Great Depression between them, and then the Cold War that for all practical purposes neutralized world Communism.
The latest Trump-induced border immigration crisis has grown to such destructive emotional proportions to the point of threatening America's core tradition and stature as the model of the polyglot democratic society. Our much-acclaimed nation of immigrants at Mr. Trump's urging is sinking into a cowering defensive crouch, to choruses of "Lock 'em up" and "Drain the swamp."
His notion of zero tolerance of illegal immigration, when illegal crossings are the lowest in decades, coupled with talk of sharply limiting legal immigration sounds akin to reducing the Statue of Liberty to scrap metal. For a nation of which the poet Emma Lazarus spoke of as embracing huddled masses yearning to breathe free, this is no way to act. And it is not the way for the nation to redefine itself in the early 21st century.
Some cartoonist should sketch Lady Liberty putting down her torch to pick up a crying little child. That would be an accurate portrait of the situation now than Time's clever cover of a wailing child who, it turned out, hadn't been separated from her mother. With Donald Trump and his Fake News campaign always in mind, competitive American journalism will remain driven to be first, but first be sure to get it right.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.