The Fake News Doesn’t Tell The Truth

“The Fake News doesn’t tell the truth.”
-President Donald Trump, CPAC speech, 24 Feb 2017

Once again, President Trump spoke out against the Fake News, this time at the CPAC conference at National Harbor.  To be fair, it sounded a lot more powerful when he was talking.  It sounded impressive, deeply meaningful, profound even.  And then I read the words.

Trump sounds great in person.  When you’re watching him with an open mind, he’s an incredibly powerful speaker — but he doesn’t say much.  He’s a skilled orator who uses a third-grade vocabulary to convey simple ideas and make them seem powerful.

The comparison has been made to Hitler before, and it’s a harsh one.  Seriously; until a world leader starts suggesting we kill off millions of his own people, he really shouldn’t be compared to Hitler, and however badly you might hate Donald Trump, you can’t accuse him of genocide.

But in one way they are similar, quite legitimately:  Adolf Hitler had a similar power of oratory, and he used the same simple speech, the same basic words, and the same appeal to nationalism and pride.  He was famous for moving crowds to wild enthusiasm using a script that, on paper, looks little more than nonsense.

Granted, though, Hitler was bent on global conquest.  When Trump annexes the Sudetenland and invades Poland and talks about setting up internment camps, then we can worry.

So with this simple vocabulary, what exactly did get said?  Well, Trump spoke not of repealing but of fixing Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act).  He spoke of rebuilding the inner cities — and drew applause from a very conservative crowd.  Some of his ideas, if they happen literally as he spoke them, will be a very good thing.

And some, not so good.  He spoke of the First Amendment as a beautiful thing, and so it is; he criticizes the Fake News, and by the exact same freedom, I can criticize him.

He used the words “Clean Coal”.  There is no such thing as clean coal.  It does not exist.

To be fair, the Japanese have developed technology that can burn coal cleanly.  They use fractional distillation methods and mind-numbing filtration systems to burn almost anything and harvest the chemicals released by the reaction.  And they have to; they’re an overcrowded island nation.  If they pollute, cities suffocate.

We could put that technology to work, but we won’t — because it’s horrifically expensive.  Instead, we’ve repealed even the tiny protection that was given by the stream rule, and we’re going to open up coal-fired power generation along the coast.  Because nobody lives downwind, so who will complain?  The fish?

(Well, as it happens — yes.  Fish don’t like swimming in dilute sulfuric and carbonic acid; they tend to die off, or according to this article, go crazy first.  I won’t even object about keeping the Atlantic pristine and beautiful here, but instead that fisheries industries are massive, and they’re suffering already.  But that’s a much longer article.)

And he’s embracing manufacturing — which again is great on the surface.  But there’s always a downwind; there’s always a downstream, and a lot of the regulation he’s talking about getting rid of exists for a damn good reason.

The other part of this is, he’s telling us we should bring back a jobs economy that hasn’t existed in fifty years because of automation, international trade competition, and modern technology.  We’re never going to see that again, not even if we closed our borders to all imports.  This is because we haven’t got the demand, the infrastructure, or the cheap labor willing to work in the horrible conditions that you see in the Chinese factories that would compete with our own.

(If you don’t know that story, read the article I linked.  You won’t believe it, but it’s true.)

“I love the First Amendment.  Nobody loves it better than me; nobody.  I mean, who uses it more than I do?”
-President Donald Trump, CPAC speech, 24 Feb 2017

He stressed that his statement is that the Fake Media is the enemy — not of him alone, but of the American people.  “They have a professional obligation as members of the press to report honestly.”  That’s what he said, and in a very real sense he’s quite correct.  People rely on the news media to convey the truth to them, and a lot of times all we get is opinion and bias.  Trump goes on about the “Clinton News Network” and their false narrative, and of course Fox News is likewise legendary for the exact same thing — in the opposite direction, but the same thing.

The trouble is, objective journalism doesn’t really exist, and it never has.  It’s a myth.  There’s a false expectation out there to the effect that the media has to report the facts and only the facts.  That’s appropriate when it comes to things like the box scores and lists of names, but the news isn’t news unless there’s a way for readers and listeners to relate it to themselves, to their own lives.  That’s why human interest stories exist in the first place — because we can relate to them.

Let’s take for example the new Executive Order.  Now, I haven’t seen the text yet; it hasn’t been published on the White House website.  (Update:  Now it has; here it is.)  But I can tell you what it says, more or less; it’s a statement about how excessive regulation and bad trade treaties are hurting American manufacturing.  And it establishes task forces to identify the most restrictive regulations, the ones with the harshest impact, so they can be targeted for elimination.

Neutral reporting would give you just the facts and no more.  But journalism relates that to you; that’s the whole point.  Anyone can just go and read the text; it’s out there, freely accessible.  But we don’t; we want it interpreted.  For example:  Either this order will be gutting the regulations that protect us from manufacturing waste and pollution and horrible working conditions, or it’ll be a new and brilliant blow in the war against the bureaucracy that’s strangling American trade and the American economy.  Both interpretations are valid, both are oversimplifications.  And we who get our news from the sources that interpret for us have to always remember that their interpretations are always biased, always partisan, always at least slightly wrong.

Which, hard though this may be to believe, is exactly the way it should be:  We need to get back in the habit of listening to everyone and then deciding for ourselves.  To do that best, we need the best reporting — and that means, yes, the raw facts should always be available, but also that all the experts, the scientists and economists and policy wonks, everyone should be free to weigh in with their opinions.  Sometimes it’s wrong; sometimes it’s very wrong — and it’s up to us to figure out when.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.”  That’s something else Mr. Trump said, and I’d find it hard to disagree more.  The press, in order to remain free to report, needs to have the right to use any sources they like, not just the officially approved ones.  And the sources themselves need to be able to speak without fear of persecution (or prosecution) at any time and on any subject, which is why they can get quoted anonymously.

Oh yes, there are exceptions — national security is one, and ought to be; if we’re sending the troops somewhere, it’s not a good thing to broadcast that on CNN.  If there’s a federal case being built, it undermines it to leak the evidence to the press.  Responsible journalism takes that into account; responsible publishers balance the public’s right to know against the public’s interest, the national interest, and any harm that might be done by the release of the story.

“Reporting live from map grid coordinates XYZ by 7-delta, this is CNN, embedded with the 11th Armored Division.  We’re beginning our sneak attack on enemy forces in twelve minutes, and… hang on; artillery incoming.  Somehow they found out where we are.  This is CNN, taking cover…”

This is one example of why you should exercise journalistic discretion.

But the people who exercise this are the journalists, not the government.  If the government could always be trusted to act in the best interest of the people, that would be one thing — but they can’t.  Because the government, like the media, is made of people, and people always have personal interests.  A free press exists in part to keep the government from exceeding its authority, or from behaving in a way that’s counter to the public interest.

It’s a tough line to walk, and sometimes people will get it wrong.  That’s inevitable.  But we must be careful to never impose excessive external restraint, or else the press will never be able to get it right either.

The President’s speech can be seen here in its entirety, courtesy C-SPAN.

 

 

 

 

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