May We Have the ‘Fake’ Envelope, Please?

Posted January 17, 2018 10:41 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — 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 precision in reporting.

The execution was not flawless.

On Wednesday, after weeks of shifting deadlines, cryptic clues and executive obfuscation, Trump was to release his long-promised “Fake News Awards,” an anti-media project that had alarmed advocates of press freedom and heartened his political base.

“And the FAKE NEWS winners are …,” he wrote on Twitter at 8 p.m.

The message linked to a malfunctioning page on the Republican National Committee website. An error screen read: “The site is temporarily offline, we are working to bring it back up. Please try back later.”

The page returned less than an hour later as something resembling a Republican Party news release, with a list of Trump-era accomplishments and jabs at news organizations.

The “winners” were CNN, mentioned four times; The New York Times, with two mentions; and ABC, The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek, with one mention apiece.

The reports singled out by Trump touched on serious issues, like the media’s handling of the investigation by the special counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, and frivolous matters, like the manner in which journalists conveyed how the president fed fish during a stop at a koi pond on his visit to Japan.

Journalists mentioned by name included Paul Krugman, an Op-Ed columnist at The Times, and Brian Ross of ABC News, who was suspended by the network last month because of an erroneous report.

The content of the spectacle was less notable than its premise: a sitting president using his bully pulpit for a semiformalized attack on the free press.

In two subsequent tweets, Trump added that there were “many great reporters I respect” and defended his administration’s record in the face of “a very biased media.”

The technical anticlimax seemed a fitting end to a peculiar saga that began in November when Trump floated the bestowing of a “FAKE NEWS TROPHY.”

The idea matured into the “Fake News Awards,” which the president initially said in a Jan. 2 Twitter post he would give out on Jan. 8 to honor “the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media.”

With the date approaching, Trump wrote on Twitter that the event would be moved to Wednesday because “the interest in, and importance of, these awards is far greater than anyone could have anticipated!”

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. In response to Trump’s endeavor, the Committee to Protect Journalists this month recognized the president among the “world leaders who have gone out of their way to attack the press and undermine the norms that support freedom of the media.”

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.”)

The buzz around the president’s latest anti-press stunt 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.

Yet despite Trump’s manifest interest in opposing the media as a political ploy, the degree of planning for the awards inside the White House was unclear.

“We’ll keep you guys posted,” Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said at a Wednesday 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.” It is not unusual for Trump to announce that he will take measures to go after the press. Before the delayed “Fake News Awards,” he had a mixed record on following 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.

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.