Fake News Awards? Don’t Roll Out the Red Carpet Just Yet

Posted January 17, 2018 6:07 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump — who gleefully questioned President Barack Obama’s birthplace for years without evidence, long insisted on the guilt of the Central Park Five despite exonerating proof and claimed that millions of illegal ballots cost him the popular vote in 2016 — wanted to have a word with the American public about accuracy in reporting.

Specifically, Wednesday was the occasion of his long-promised “Fake News Awards,” honoring “the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media,” as he phrased it on Twitter. Or it was supposed to be.

Trump had initially pledged to hand out the awards on Jan. 8, but that information turned out to be — well, you get the idea.

So when the White House released Trump’s Wednesday schedule without any mention of an awards ceremony intended to denigrate the media, there was some suspicion that the festivities may not be fully cooked.

“We’ll keep you guys posted,” Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said at an afternoon press briefing, after attempting, repeatedly, to duck a question about the matter from a Fox News reporter.

“It’ll be something later today,” she added. “I know you’re all waiting to see if you are big winners, I’m sure.”

From the beginning, the awards were the sort of Trumpian production that seemed easy to mock but difficult to ignore. Members of the news media joked about the speeches they would prepare, the tuxedos and gowns they would fetch. It would be an honor, they said, just to be nominated.

Here, it seemed, was the opéra bouffe climax of Trump’s campaign against the media, a bizarro-world spectacle that both encapsulated and parodied the president’s animus toward a major democratic institution.

Late-night comedy shows created satirical Emmys-style advertising campaigns to snag what some referred to as a coveted “Fakey.”

“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bought a billboard in Times Square, nominating itself in categories like “Least Breitbarty” and “Corruptest Fakeness.” Jimmy Kimmel, who has emerged as a Trump bête noire, called it “the Stupid People’s Choice Awards.”

Politico reported that the awards could even pose an ethical issue for White House aides, with some experts arguing that the event would breach a ban on government officials using their office to explicitly promote or deride private organizations.

And press advocates cringed at the prospect of a gala dedicated to the phrase “fake news,” which has already helped corrode trust in journalism in the United States and around the world.

Two Republicans from Arizona, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, denounced Trump’s anti-press attacks, with Flake noting in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday that the president had borrowed a term from Stalin to describe the media: “enemy of the people.” (Sanders shot back at Flake on Wednesday, saying, “We welcome access to the media every day.”)

Adding to the drama, White House aides remained silent on the details, unwilling even to confirm the fact that the awards would happen at all.

“Maybe the Fake News Awards are themselves fake news, and the WH is making a super-meta statement on the inherent paradox between the ‘real’ and the ‘perceived,'” wrote a Twitter user named @capitalzoo, one of many politicos who had been anticipating the event with glee or dread — or a mixture of both.

By Tuesday, the entire venture seemed in doubt, with Sanders referring to it as a “potential event.”

It is not unusual for Trump, in his long and circuitous career in real estate, entertainment and politics, to announce plans to fight back against journalists whose work displeases him and then decline to follow through.

There was the libel lawsuit that he threatened this month against the author Michael Wolff over his slashing, if error-specked, book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House”; Wolff’s publisher, Henry Holt and Co., responded by moving up the release date. “Fire and Fury” is now a No. 1 New York Times best-seller, and Trump’s lawsuit has not materialized.

An earlier iteration of the Fake News Awards that the president proposed on Twitter in November — the “FAKE NEWS TROPHY!” — has yet to appear.

At the tail end of the 2016 presidential race, Trump said he would sue The New York Times for libel over an article that included two women who accused him of touching them inappropriately. The Times replied with a stern letter, and nothing further was heard of the suit.

On an occasion when he pursued a grievance in court, Trump met with poor results: The defamation suit he brought against a biographer, Timothy L. O’Brien, was dismissed by a New Jersey judge in 2009. Trump had claimed that O’Brien severely understated his net worth.

Even if this week’s awards do not go forward, the buzz around them has contributed to a larger shift in American attitudes toward the press.

In a study released this week by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 66 percent of Americans who were surveyed said most news organizations blurred opinion and fact, up from 42 percent in 1984. “Fake news” was deemed a threat to democracy by a majority of respondents. And political affiliation is a major factor in perception of bias: 67 percent of Republicans said they saw “a great deal” of political bias in the news media, and 26 percent of Democrats said the same.

For a while, it seemed that Wolff might dominate the honors, making Trump briefly forget his disdain for “fake news” CNN and the “failing” New York Times.

Wolff is likely to stay a thorn in the president’s side. The Hollywood Reporter said on Wednesday that the author had signed a seven-figure deal to adapt “Fire and Fury” for a medium the president holds dear: television.