Fighting back against the fake claim of ‘fake news’

People didn’t want to accept that the coronavirus was on its way to torpedo this country. As many have learned from President Trump, it’s easier to dismiss something if you just call it “fake.”

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Like ‘Make America Great Again,’ ‘fake news’ has always meant whatever you needed it to be, writes Natalie Moore.

Photo credit should read ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump succeeded.

His co-opting of the phrase “fake news” has wormed its way into everyday language. “Fake news” no longer exclusively refers to information that’s a hoax.

My first encounter with the idea of fake news was as a child glancing askance at supermarket tabloids as my mother stood in the grocery line. The garish headlines about alien abductions, salacious celebrity lies and half-human babies born come to mind. Years later, I found fake news could be biting satire and enjoyable, as The Onion perfected. Stephen Colbert elevated the concept on his late-night spoof show, “The Colbert Report,” on Comedy Central.

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Today the free press in the United States is Trump’s declared enemy. His war is dangerous to the public and democracy, as he has turned the unabashedly biased Fox News into a personal megaphone and defacto state television. (If you are at home on isolation, I recommend watching Showtime’s summer 2019 miniseries “The Loudest Voice” about Fox News and Roger Ailes’ political agenda to distort the news.)

To Trump, “fake news” is a pugilistic response to anything he disagrees with. His aim is to discredit the press, deflect criticism and sow discontent. As a reality television star, Trump knows how to conquer mass media — from television to Twitter.

In “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America,” author James Poniewozik traces how Trump rebranded “fake news” to fit his plot line.

“Like ‘Make America Great Again,’ ‘fake news’ meant whatever you needed it to be. At first it was a literal denial — ‘This news is untrue’ — but it quickly entered the half-literal, pro-wrestling kayfabe-osphere of so many Trumpism,” Poniewozik writes in his book. “Maybe it meant the news was true but unfair. Or it was true but disrespectful.”

Trump found a winning formula. After he won the White House, he continued his approach. Any news reports that don’t fawn over him are labeled “fake.” Including true and accurate news reports on the cusp of a pandemic.

On March 9, Trump tweeted this: “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant. Surgeon General, ‘The risk is low to the average American.’”

I don’t pretend to know what’s in Trump’s head or heart. Honestly, that doesn’t matter to me. But I do know that statement is a public health disaster. And those statements seep into the general public. People didn’t want to accept that the coronavirus was on its way to torpedo this country. It’s easier to dismiss something you don’t agree with as “fake.” Same playbook as Trump.

Truthfully, my concern about “fake news” predates our global public health scare. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed people of different political stripes use the phrase when they disagree with something. It could be as minor as a meme, a comment about a sports figure or pop culture star. “Fake news” is a defense mechanism, often done without major consequences, but its origins go back to trying to undermine journalism. Saying the phrase repeatedly, even in a different context, damages.

No doubt, journalism deserves criticism and cynicism. Our industry is far from perfect. But just as a broad term like “the media,” which technically means anything from film to tabloids to pop music to public media, dilutes, so does “fake news.” People are mimicking a president who doesn’t value accountable journalism.

The News Literacy Project is a nonpartisan nonprofit that teaches media literacy to students in the digital age. I have volunteered in Chicago classrooms to help middle-schoolers decipher what is truly real and fake.I asked Peter Adams, senior vice president of education, what he thinks of “fake news.”

“While it began as a helpful term to describe a particularly kind of misinformation, it’s been weaponized and politicized as a catchall to refer to misinformation,” Adams said. “We really try to help educators push past that term and think about the different kind of information like pieces of false information.”

If you really break down the meaning of “fake news,” you will see it is an oxymoron. If it’s fake, it is not news.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org.

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