NEW YORK — As a news person, I hear a lot about “fake news.” President Trump has made it one of his hallmark issues.
This week, the day after he announced his Fake News Awards (on Jan. 17), his fundraisers sent out a letter asking people to vote on who should get the top award. The fundraising letter said: “Of all the biased, absurd, and downright fake news stories the media wrote about us in 2017, I picked just eleven of the very worst. But now it’s time for the media to hear from you. I want you – the American people – to crown the king of fake news 2017.”
Is it really about fake news or trouncing on the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of the press? This week, an extraordinary thing happened. Senators from Arizona, John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans took very public stances on freedom of the press.
Before his “awards” for fake news were issued, John McCain wrote in his column: “President Trump does not seem to understand that his rhetoric and actions reverberate in the same way. He has threatened to continue his attempt to discredit the free press by bestowing ‘fake news awards’ upon reporters and news outlets whose coverage he disagrees with. Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.”
Sen. McCain also wrote: “The phrase ‘fake news’ – granted legitimacy by an American president – is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens. … We can do more to foster conditions in which freedom of expression and information can thrive, including working to change increasingly political attitudes toward journalism. And we can condemn violence against journalists, denounce censorship and support dissidents and activists as they seek to speak the truth.
“Ultimately, freedom of information is critical for a democracy to succeed. We become better, stronger and more effective societies by having an informed and engaged public that pushes policymakers to best represent not only our interests but also our values. Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely. Only truth and transparency can guarantee freedom.”
I am on the American Board of Reporters without Borders, one of the main organizations to support freedom of the press worldwide. This week, our Washington office issued a release saying it now has its own “Bravo Donald Award” and that “Donald Trump has never let a week go by without attacking and denigrating journalists. He constantly accuses them of producing “fake news” and doing a poor job. In his latest Twitter offensive, he has announced that awards will be presented to the “most corrupt and biased” media. Reporters without Borders says the United States is currently 43rd out of 180 counties in the World Press Freedom Index.
One news outlet – not considered “fake” because it is slanted right – said when Sen. Flake gave his speech, it was to a mostly empty chamber. There were two Democratic senators on the floor listening to the speech. What the news outlet did not say is that when senators give speeches, they are usually to an empty chamber, with the exception of the people at the desk in the front of the room and the C-SPAN camera. But, I suppose that is not “fake news” even though it was clearly written with bias.
Sen. Flake compared President Trump’s words to those of Josef Stalin: “It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader.”
Having worked in the White House Press room for almost 24 years, I will tell you that the same press briefing can have many different points of emphasis. But fake news? I think not. What has happened is that Syria, Myanmar, Philippines and other countries are now calling out “fake news.”
There needs to be support for a free press around the world, and it should start at the top, with our president.