On Fake News, Censorship of Media and Blocking Press Outlets from White House Briefings

This week marked the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency and, without a doubt, it has been an eventful four weeks. From the ‘Muslim Ban’ executive order which barred citizens of seven ‘majority-Muslim’ countries from entering the United States and the anti-abortion executive order to the repealing of trans students’ protection to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity (to name a select few) – this administrations’ actions so far have been in accordance with the regressive political agenda already displayed during Trump’s campaign.

One particularly interesting development since Trump’s arrival on the political scene is the frequent mention of fake news, his explicit dislike and distrust of mostly well-established media outlets, and the new concept of ‘alternative facts’ coined by Kellyanne Conway. The video below shows Conway arguing for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statements regarding the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration to have been said ‘alternative facts’, not falsehoods.

Ignoring for the time being that the definition of the word fact already precludes it from being used alongside alternative, the more worrying aspect to come out of this is the nonchalant attitude with which Conway uttered them. In the last months we got to witness the confidence and reassurance of Trump and his team as they were consistently striving to undermine the traditional mainstream press, particularly those considered to be left-leaning outlets. Whether it is Trump ranting on Twitter (the tweet below is from last week Friday, 17th Feb.) or speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday (24th Feb.), he hardly ever misses out on discrediting the media.

His defence for this excessive media-bashing (my words) – as he explained in the video footage from CPAC – is that he only wants to call out those outlets distributing “fake news”.  At this point it would be best to look at the current understanding and use of the term ‘fake news’. To me it feels like we have come to use and refer to ‘fake news’ in two slightly different though related discourses. First, there has been the coverage of ‘fake news’ being shared across various social media platforms with Facebook frequently cited as the main culprit. This trend and the credible media sources’ reporting on it relates to news that has been generated and shared online which is actually false. Given that these articles and other types of media seem to have flooded the web, a conversation quickly emerged questioning how we consume media and how critical our judgement is when assessing new information. As I am planning on dedicating an entire post to this topic, which will include thoughts on how our approach to news sources might have changed over the last year as well as have a look at fact-checking sites and news aggregators, I will now turn to the second usage of the phrase ‘fake news’. Namely the one that Donald Trump, his team, and supporters are promoting.

Basically, it appears that any media organisation or affiliated person can be denounced as distributing fake news once they have upset, challenged, or critised Trump. At CPAC he accused mainstream media of lying and inventing information as he stated that “[…] because they have no sources, they make ’em up where there are none”. He goes on to tell the audience that he “saw one story recently where they said, ‘Nine people have confirmed…’. There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people”. The fact that Donald Trump does not even disclose which news story he is referencing (not to mention which particular article) is telling: similar to the narrative he pushes of the media not caring about reliable sources, he himself apparently is above relying on sources as well. He continues that, once again, his words had been misconstrued in the reporting on his ‘media being the enemy of the people’ comments insisting that the “dishonest media” failed to clarify that he had in fact referred to ‘fake news’ as being the threat rather than the media in general.  Whichever it may be, the truly alarming side of it is that it is within Donald Trump’s power to decide who gets to be ‘fake news’ or not.

As of yesterday, the results seem to be in and they are as follows: the New York Times, LA Times, CNN, Politico, Buzzfeed, and BBC among others. All of these press outlets were denied entry to the Press Secretary’s gaggle held on Friday. Journalists from The Associated Press and Time decided to boycott the briefing in solidarity with those barred. It remains to be seen how the blocking of media outlets from White House briefings and other forms of press releases will be dealt with in the weeks to come. Following Friday’s incident, which garnered much attention and outrage online, Trump proceeded to tweet this, presumably in reply:

•••

It is not exactly surprising that honesty, proper code of conduct, and facts are not as highly valued under Trump. His campaign trail gave more than a hint of what to expect from a presidency under Donald J. Trump. Yet despite all that, the reality that the political climate would change so drastically in such little time is impressive and frightening. Within only a month the situation has gotten to a point where formerly respected news outlets are being barred from a press briefing meaning that the ideal of free speech and freedom of the press are under more threat than anticipated. What happened yesterday also goes to show that those who have claimed that Trump would not go through with his promises have underestimated him. Of course, Trump has a whole team supposedly advising him and receives input from various people on the matters at hand. There have been news reports suggesting that Steve Bannon, the WH chief strategist and former chairman of Breitbart News, is the one actually making decisions behind the scenes. In any case, what is definitely interesting to note is that Sean Spicer had actually already been asked about possible barrings of news agencies from press conferences prior to Trump’s taking offfice – his response was that there would be no banning of particular outlets since “that’s what makes a democracy a democracy vs a dictatorship.”


Sources:

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