Bilateral Commentary

Fake News, Fake President?

Author:  Dr. Anthony Bryson

It has become increasingly difficult to provide Donald Trump any more latitude as he learns the job of being President of the United States.  There is an expectation that the President will acknowledge the scope of his responsibilities and begin to be representative of all Americans, not just those who stoke his ego or line his pockets.  Mr. Trump, while winning the Electoral College by the smallest of margins, must recognize that he is to govern all constituents and provide governance that is fair to all, not just those who voted for him.  The President is supposed to rely on facts and experts to inform his decision making process, and use only credible sources of information rather than those that make him feel good about himself.  We are seeing that this President does not embrace these ideals.  We are seeing that he is not representative of the many.  What we are seeing is a man who lives inside a confirmation bias bubble, and is willing to lash out at any source of information that does not confirm what he thinks he already knows.  This is dangerous, and it can no longer be tolerated.

One of Donald Trump’s favorite proclamations is calling something fake.  Any media source that does not comply with his worldview, or does not heap accolades on him to feed his monumental ego, is considered “fake news.”  This claim is not only disingenuous, but also extremely dangerous.  In a world where information is now considered the product of power, it is outrageous to claim one source of media as fake news while proclaiming another trustworthy, not when the very ones considered trustworthy by this individual do not pass the test of trustworthiness.  Sadly, because the Presidency was once considered a position of moral authority, this is acceptable to many people.  Worse, many of these same people accept the proclamations of this President to be honest and truthful, which they clearly are not.  When one actually applies critical thinking skills to the comments about media, and verifies the sources of information, the facts stack up greatly against the man in the White House.

When I hear a claim of “fake news” it has a counter effect on me than it does on most people.  When I hear someone use the term fake news, it drives me to dig into the sources and verify the information on both sides.  It makes me want to understand the reports, the reporters, the motivations for the piece, and interpretations of the facts behind the information.  I am driven to find primary sources of information that provide facts and context rather than just opinion or reframing.  I refuse to take someone else’s word on events, and will only believe what is reported through multiple credible sources.  This is what I wish every person would do as it would allow us to find common ground on the facts of issues and have healthy debate on possible solutions.  Without first defining and comprehending the facts, establishing a foundation of understanding, healthy debate becomes pretty much impossible.

With this in mind I have a problem with Mr. Trump’s use of the term “fake news.”  First and foremost, Mr. Trump uses the term for sources of information that he does not like.  His use of the term is not based on the facts being wrong, or the credibility of source being weak, he uses the term to denigrate those with which he has a personal axe to grind.  Him lashing out at the Washington Post, or the New York Times, or CNN, is not about their inability to present factual information, his calling them fake news is based solely on the fact that they present information critical of him.  Conversely, Mr. Trump speaks glowingly in terms of Fox News, especially Fox & Friends, and almost solely on the fact they speak of him in glowing and supportive terms.  Trump relies heavily on sources of information that speak of him in glowing terms, or confirm his thought processes.  He rarely will consume information that challenges him or presents information counter to his beliefs.  This was never so evident than when it was leaked that Trump gets two briefings each day, of information that only speaks well of him.  Staff present him a folder of information in the morning, and then in the afternoon, with articles that only have positive things to say about Mr. Trump.  This speaks volumes to his mental state, but the Goldwater rule prevents me from speaking directly to that issue.  Least to say, this is not the behavior of someone who is looking for fact based information, especially when he refuses a daily security brief from the Intelligence Community where fats reign supreme.  Mr. Trump’s media consumption habits are very troubling.

It is important that we pursue information that is factual and accurate.  It is important that we agree on the facts and reject those we find are incongruent with reality.  When the evidence leads in a direction, we must follow.  When conjecture and opinion counter the facts, we must ask ourselves if the information is trustworthy in any shape or form?  But what are trustworthy sources of information?  How do we determine the credibility of a media source?  This isn’t as complex as you might think. 

When you consider the credibility of a source, always start with how long it has existed.  Interests that get the facts wrong are not likely going to last.  If a newspaper has been in business for over 100 years, that’s a pretty good indicator it is good at what it does.  If a source of information has only been around for a few months we must consider the validity of the information and possible bias.  And yes, I do recognize the irony of me saying this on a site that new to the discussion.  But that is kind of the point.  I don’t want you to take my word for anything, I want you to go to other sources of information and verify exactly what I have to say!

Next consider the number of awards and accolades it has won.  If it has a reputation of truth with those who judge the reporting and publications, it is likely a quality source.  If it has a list of Pulitzers or Peabodys or Murrows, or Paynes awards, it is likely a good source of information.

Next, consider their adherence to journalistic standards and maintenance of journalistic integrity.  Do they multi-source articles?  Do they protect their sources?  Do they stand behind their reporting?  Do they publish retractions when they get things wrong?  This last one is important, because people get things wrong and people of quality will admit to their mistakes and own them.  With adherence to these journalistic standards comes integrity and trustworthiness. 

Next, consider its staff of writers.  Are they recognized as being experts in their fields?  Are they themselves award winners?  Do people consider them serious about their work, regardless of political identification?  If the journalists are good, the information is likely to well-sourced. 

Next, consider the journalistic freedom that the reporters or news room have.  Are they being instructed to present information a certain way?  Are they being told to ignore certain stories?  Do they have the freedom to pursue the story, regardless of where it may lead?  If the journalists are controlled, or coached in how to present their information, then you may not be getting your information from a credible source.

Finally, is the information presented also found in other credible sources of information?  If you only find your information in a series of online blogs, then it probably isn’t very credible.  But if you read a story in the New York Times, and see the same information reported in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and on BBC, then the information holds that much more credibility.  It is important to get information from sources considered credible and trustworthy.  Even conservative Forbes Magazine lists the New York Times as the most trusted source of news and information.  Its top 10 sources are rounded out with the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, BBC, The Economist, wire services (AP, Bloomberg, Reuters), Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, and Politico.  Runners up included National Public Radio, TIME magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times (and many other regional, metropolitan daily newspapers), USA Today, CNN, NBC News, CBS News, and ABC News.  Sadly, Fox News, Breitbart, or did not make the list.

Herein lies the greatest problem with Donald Trump.  His office, the President of the United States of America, is supposed to be the most trustworthy position in our land.  When the President speaks, he is supposed to be presenting the facts of the current situation and issue.  The President has access to the most complex information gathering apparatus on the planet, so he should be presenting the best collection of information available.  But this isn’t what Donald Trump does.  He speaks in sound bites taken directly from questionable sources of information.  The information he espouses is not congruent with the information available through trusted sources.  Mr. Trump parrots what he sees and hears on the likes of Fox and Friends and Breitbart, both acknowledged as being the lowest of quality information sources.  His own staff corrects half the things he says.  Hell, Donald Trump contradicts half the things he himself says in any 48 hour period, usually multiple times and multiple ways.  Is that something we would consider as trustworthy?

When I weigh that question I go back to my days working with the Police.  In law enforcement, when someone can’t keep their story straight, they are not considered a trustworthy source of information, nor being truthful.  Someone who changes their story is usually considered suspect.  If another individual cannot corroborate the information, that information is usually discarded and other sources of information sought out.  In the search for truth there is only what can be proven by the facts.  If the facts do not support your claim, then you have a problem on your hands.  You are either lying, or are accepting the lies of another to insulate yourself.  Mr. Trump should keep that in mind.

As Mr. Trump continues to rail against the media who have the mendacity to do their job and counter those in power, he should remember that the truth will eventually come to the surface.  He can cry “fake news” all he wants, but as more facts come to the surface, and a bigger picture begins to emerge, we will finally be able to distill the truth, and it will be used to measure the man in office.  Mr. Trump should be concerned about how he uses that “fake news” accusation, or he may prove to be nothing more than a “fake President.”

Dr. Bryson is an adjunct faculty member at Fielding Graduate University, teaching classes in media and political psychologies.  He is the author of the book, The Trump Card: The Long Game of Discrediting Media and Influencing Elections.

Illustration copyright Anthony Bryson