May We Have the ‘Fake’ Envelope, Please?
Posted January 18, 2018 1:03 a.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2018 1:06 a.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 accuracy in reporting.
On Wednesday, after weeks of shifting deadlines, and cryptic clues, Trump released 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. Eastern time.
The message linked, at first, to a malfunctioning page on GOP.com, 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.”
When the page came back online less than an hour later, it resembled a Republican Party news release. Headlined “The Highly Anticipated 2017 Fake News Awards” and attributed to “Team GOP,” it included a list of Trump administration accomplishments and jabs at news organizations presented in the form of an 11-point list.
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.
Taken as a whole, Trump’s examples of grievances came as no surprise to anyone who had read his complaints about the media on Twitter.
The various 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.
The first item on the list referred not to a news article but to a short opinion piece posted on The Times’ website at 12:42 on the night Trump became president: “The New York Times’ Paul Krugman claimed on the day of President Trump’s historic, landslide victory that the economy will ‘never’ recover,” the entry read.
What Krugman actually wrote was this: “If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.” Krugman concluded his election night take by predicting that a global recession was likely, while adding the caveat, “I suppose we could get lucky somehow.”
Three days later, Krugman retracted his prediction of an economic collapse, saying he overreacted.
The next target was Brian Ross of ABC News, who was suspended by the network last month because of an erroneous report.
ABC apologized for and corrected Ross’ report that Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, planned to testify that Trump had directed him to make contact with Russian officials when Trump was still a candidate.
In fact, Trump had directed Flynn to make contact after the election, when he was president-elect.
At the time of Ross’ suspension, Kathleen Culver, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that the president was likely to use the mistake as ammunition against his political opponents — an observation that seemed borne out by the “Fake News Awards.”
The third entry on the GOP.com list went after CNN, a favorite target of the president, for reporting incorrectly last month that the president’s eldest child, Donald Trump Jr., had received advance notice from WikiLeaks about a trove of hacked documents that it planned to release during last year’s presidential campaign.
In fact, the email to the younger Trump was sent a day after the documents, stolen from the Democratic National Committee, were made available to the general public. The correction undercut the main thrust of CNN’s story, which had been seized on by critics of the president as evidence of coordination between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign.
Another entry on the list took on The Washington Post, claiming that it had “FALSELY reported the President’s massive sold-out rally in Pensacola, Florida was empty. Dishonest reporter showed picture of empty arena HOURS before crowd started pouring in.”
The reporter in question was David Weigel, who had posted the photo in question on his Twitter account before quickly deleting it. The Post itself did not publish the photo or a report on the size of the crowd at the Trump event. The “Fake News Awards” entry, however, conflated a reporter’s tweet with the publication itself. It also omitted the fact that Weigel deleted his tweet and apologized for it when it was pointed out to him that it was misleading. Further, it did not mention that Trump had called for Weigel to be fired over the tweet. (He was not.)
The content of the 11-point list was perhaps less notable than its premise: a sitting president using his bully pulpit for a semi-formalized attack on the free press.
In two subsequent tweets Wednesday night, 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 Wednesday that the president had borrowed a term from Stalin to describe the media: “enemy of the people.”
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.
Trump’s list did not mention BuzzFeed, a media outlet that drew his ire last year when it published a salacious and largely unsubstantiated intelligence dossier that purported to lay out how Russia had aided the Trump campaign. On Jan. 8, Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, filed a defamation lawsuit in federal court against Fusion GPS, the firm behind the report, as well as a separate lawsuit against BuzzFeed in state court.
Trump also did not mention Michael Wolff, the author of the slashing, if error-specked, best-seller, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” although a lawyer working on his behalf had sent a letter demanding that the publisher Henry Holt and Co. halt publication of the book.
“Fire and Fury” did not come out until Jan. 5, so perhaps the author will receive a prominent mention next January, if the president sees fit to give out the 2018 Fake News Awards.