Trump fake news row: press ‘under threat’

Dictating? On Friday Trump attacked the media at CPAC, a major conservative conference.

This weekend Donald Trump stepped up his war on the media. He called some titles the “enemy of the people” and declared critical coverage “fake news”. Is press freedom in jeopardy?

In 1791, the US founding fathers established the Bill of Rights. Ten key freedoms, they said, needed protection. At the top of the list stood the first amendment.

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” it read. This is the cornerstone of American democracy and a key reason the USA is admired by democrats around the world.

On Friday, President Trump said: “I love the first amendment. Nobody loves it better than me.” But in the same speech, he called much of the press “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”. He said journalists “shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name”.

That day journalists from several major outlets were denied access to a White House press briefing. On Saturday Trump said he would not attend this year’s White House correspondents’ dinner.

Trump has railed against the press on Twitter and at rallies. This month he berated journalists at an extraordinary press conference, saying: “the level of dishonesty is out of control”. He has called for a loosening of America’s libel laws. His adviser Steve Bannon has called the media “the opposition party” and said it should “keep its mouth shut”.

Meanwhile Trump’s administration has spread misinformation. He and his aides have invented incidents to defend his immigration policy. A key adviser used the phrase “alternative facts” to defend Trump’s lies.

Wealthy Trump associates have promoted his narrative online, using detailed social profiling and data analysis techniques. One of his biggest donors, Roger Mercer, has funded several alternative media sources with a questionable commitment to facts. Trump benefits from fake news — entirely invented stories — which may become more convincing as technology advances.

All this discredits unfavourable media coverage. “The president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favour of the media he likes,” says Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal. Many major newspapers are under financial strain, which makes it easier to smear them.

Pressing the issue

Press freedom is in jeopardy, say some. Trump is discrediting and obstructing journalists who are just doing their job. His persistent lies make opponents fearful to speak up. Branding all opposition partisan is a dangerous step towards silencing all criticism. And if this can happen in the USA, it can happen anywhere.

An over-reaction, others cry. The relationship between press and president should be adversarial in a healthy democracy. Good riddance to the cosy dinner parties and briefings for members of an established club. Besides, the Trump era gives journalists so much to investigate: they will enjoy a surge of support.

You Decide

  1. Can you tell the difference between real news and “fake news”?
  2. Is Donald Trump a threat to the freedom of the press?

Activities

  1. In pairs, list ten clues which might help you to judge how true a story in the news is. Discuss as a class.
  2. Find a recent news story that interests you, from a newspaper or magazine you respect. Write a page explaining how much you trust it and why. What has the journalist done — or not done — to convince you that the detail included is true?

Some People Say...

“Nothing is a better check on government tyranny than a free press.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not a journalist. Why would this matter?
Journalists investigate the behaviour of powerful people, so you can tell what governments and businesses are up to. When the press does its job well, it exposes wrongdoing. This can help you to improve your society and take steps to prevent people abusing their power. Even if you do not read newspapers, you get their information indirectly — for example through people who do read them. They also help to change the decisions of powerful people around you.
But I’m not American.
The USA is the most powerful democracy in the world: the first amendment has inspired people around the world who believe in free speech. And if press freedom can come under threat there, similar techniques could be used elsewhere — your country could also be affected.

Word Watch

Bill of rights
The first ten amendments to the US constitution, which separated powers between different parts of the US government and was signed in 1787.
Name
Protecting the anonymity of sources is a fundamental requirement of ethical journalism. Failing to do so can leave those who expose wrongdoing at risk of harm.
Outlets
These included the New York Times, CNN and the BBC.
Correspondents’ dinner
A time-honoured tradition where presidents share jokes with the press.
Loosening
This would make it easier to sue the press. Journalists would be more wary of printing stories which offended powerful (and particularly wealthy) people.
Incidents
Trump invented an incident in Sweden and one of his aides referred to a non-existent terrorist attack which she called “the Bowling Green massacre”.
Promote
This uses the data given to companies such as Facebook to target people very precisely with adverts and change the information they consume. This in turn helps to drive stories favourable to Trump nearer to the top of Google search results.
Alternative
For example, Breitbart and CNS News.

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