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Columnist John Sheirer: Trump is the real ‘fake news’

  • President Donald Trump points before boarding Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport, in Morristown, N.J., Sunday, July 8, 2018, en route to Washington from Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. AP PHOTO/Carolyn Kaster



Monday, July 09, 2018

Less than a week after five people were murdered at the Capitol Gazette newspaper, Donald Trump again used the term “fake news” in a tweet. That’s disgusting.

Trump’s definition of “fake news” is, of course, anything that doesn’t match his agenda. For example, he calls coverage of the investigation into his Russia connections, “fake news.” He labels any news network not named Fox or any outlet that questions his authoritarianism, “fake news.”

Trump’s supporters mimic his “fake news” catchphrase. They echo Richard Nixon’s followers repeating his “liberal media” attacks decades ago. The resemblance extends to shouts of “Lügenpresse” (“lying press”) in mid-20th century Germany. In fact, Trump’s supporters used that term at an October 2016 rally.

How can we sort “fake” from “real”? A great tool is blogger Vanessa Otero’s “Media Bias Chart.” Otero analyzed dozens of outlets and placed them on a horizontal axis of liberal to conservative bias, as well as a vertical axis of accuracy in reporting. Outlets near the top of the factual axis and the middle of bias axis are the most “real” news, while those in the chart’s bottom corners are the most “fake.”

The least biased, most factual outlets include Associated Press, Reuters, NPR, BBC, and the major broadcast television news networks. The most fact-based outlets that skew slightly liberal include two Trump targets — The New York Times and The Washington Post — along with more liberal outlets such as Democracy Now, the Nation, and Vox. On the somewhat conservative, factual side are The Economist, The Hill, and the National Review, among others. These all constitute “real” news.

Trump’s favorite target, CNN, occupies an odd spot on the chart as only slightly liberal (to the right of MSNBC) and middling for accuracy. The limited accuracy placement seems due largely to CNN’s “roundtable” tradition of pitting partisan commentators against one another to generate ratings. The conservatives’ inaccuracies cancel out the liberal pundits’ facts.

CNN used to blanket viewers with every Trump campaign rally, but now calls out Trump’s many lies. That constitutes “real” news, but the network’s evolving focus on fact-checking inspired Trump’s most shameful attack, calling CNN and other reliable outlets, “the enemy of the American people.”

Otero’s chart is most interesting at its extremes. The fact-challenged, conservative-biased side includes Drudge, Daily Caller, Newsmax, Red State, and, of course, Fox News. The worst right-wing offender is InfoWars, domain of conspiracy-monger Alex Jones.

Sadly, a large percentage of conservatives claim that these biased, inaccurate sources provide the only “real” news in the media. Many Republicans get most their “news” from these terrible outlets and dismiss accurate reporting and fact-checking as hopelessly liberal.

The opposite is true for the left. Some liberal outlets rank slightly below the middle for accuracy: Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Daily Kos, for example. Liberals know these are liberal publications. We read them, but we double-check their claims with nonbiased, fact-based sources.

I barely recognize the extreme liberal outlets that rank lowest in factual accuracy. Patribotics? Never heard of it. I’ve seen Palmer Report on Facebook, but I ignore their clickbait sensationalism. I don’t know any liberals who take these sources seriously.

No major Democratic politician courts Patribotics or Palmer Report. But Trump constantly parrots Fox News, has been a guest on InfoWars, and has well-documented ties to the alt-right Breitbart.

Another troubling trend is that conservative media begins with their right-wing agenda and then shapes reporting, debate and opinion toward that agenda. By contrast, liberal and responsible mainstream outlets strive to report facts, focus their debate on facts, and present editorial opinions based on facts.

Consequently, conservatives gobble up a steady diet of misinformation masquerading as news while they demonize legitimate journalism. Liberals might dabble in left-agenda-driven media but rely on nonpartisan sources to verify information for accuracy. That’s a significant difference.

Otero’s chart omits three important resources: PolitiFact, FactCheck and Snopes. Along with the Washington Post fact-checker, these four are the go-to sources for assessing accuracy in the media and politics. The Washington Post, for example, has documented an astonishing 3,000-plus lies from Trump during his presidency.

Conservatives generally dislike these fact-checkers because conservative politicians and pundits lie far more often than liberals. For example, compare PolitiFact’s assessments of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Trump. Obama and Clinton are basically truthful three-fourths of the time. Trump, conversely, lies three-fourths of the time. The same general pattern holds for comparisons between Democrats and Republicans in general. Republicans are far less honest, yet their voters tolerate, celebrate, echo and elect these liars.

To make matters worse, social media amplifies conservative misinformation. Trump on Twitter is as blatant a liar as he is behind a microphone. And the Russian election interference (which Trump calls “fake news” despite confirmation by the international intelligence community) was spearheaded on Facebook.

Ironically, Trump supporters who were hoodwinked by the Russians believe their views reflect independent thinking. They get most of their information from Russian troll-bots or biased right-wing outlets — two sources that push almost identical viewpoints. They believe our free press (protected by the First Amendment) is their enemy.

A recent Oxford University study showed that Trump supporters were more likely to spread Russian propaganda than anyone else. A pathological liar such as Trump wields power because he’s enabled by a flock of pathological believers.

The free press — including the good people at the Capitol Gazette — isn’t “fake news.” Trump is. We can succumb to Trump’s attacks or we can embrace the First Amendment’s protection of “real” news. Let’s choose the Constitution.

John Sheirer is an author and teacher who lives in Florence. His most recent book is the satire, “Donald Trump’s Top Secret Concession Speech.” Find him at JohnSheirer.com.