At the end of yesterday’s press conference, his first in six months, Donald Trump pointed a single stubby digit through the pit full of waiting journalists, through the lenses of the news cameras, through your TV screen and out into the world, pointing with a billion reproduced fingers at the sprawling slough of reality in general. And then he said: “You’re fired.”
Usually, the significance of a press conference depends on what the person behind the podium actually says when questioned. The press themselves try to be as invisible as possible, a neutral conduit between the politician and their public. This time it was different.
Trump answered questions on Russia, gave convoluted excuses for concerns over his conflicts of interest, talked about the border wall and the Supreme Court vacancy. But what was really important was his relation to the media itself, and to its usual role as the appointed arbiters of reality.
BuzzFeed, Trump said, was a “failing pile of garbage” which is “going to suffer the consequences.” He told a CNN reporter that “your organization is terrible,” and refused to let him speak. “Don’t be rude,” Trump said, as the reporter told him that he was not being appropriate, in a brief struggle over the fallow terrain of bourgeois civility politics. “No, I’m not going to give you a question. I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”
In fact, the term “fake news” was mentioned ten times over the course of a fairly brief event, more than “jobs” (seven) or “security” (four). At stake in this news conference was news itself.
There are people who’ve spent decades worrying about the increasing integration of news with entertainment, the way reality shows can supplant reality itself, the way spectacle can spin itself into fact. Most recently, the months since the election have seen the media itself in a general panic over fake news — stories with no grounding in truth, like the Pope’s supposed endorsement of Trump, or John Podesta’s involvement in a pizzeria-based child sex ring.
As Trump creeps slowly towards power, this might be the last time it’s even possible to maintain such a worry. The press conference was a farce, with a trash-TV ending. Its discussion was all wild speculation and contesting falsehoods. It was all fake news, and no less fake for having actually happened.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, when media organizations started to lead the charge against the spread of fake news, it was supposed to be a bulwark against the flattening effect of the internet and its challenge to long-established epistemologies. Fake news is prurient, propagandistic, and perverse; it comes bubbling out of social media without any reliable sources, it vastly overstates the importance of minor details for clicks and profit, it’s unashamedly one-sided, and it’s false.
Labeling something “fake news” would annihilate it, and the traditional media could go back to carefully sorting through the world’s uncountable stories and distinguishing falsehoods from facts.
It didn’t work. The effect of the fake-news narrative was the opposite of what was intended: now the president-elect can stand behind the podium and throw the accusation right back at none other than CNN, the international symbol of American cromulence. It was an empty concept, just waiting to be recuperated by the far right.
The latest allegations against Trump were published by BuzzFeed, a site that allows much of its content to be created by anonymous users or by brands. They’re not above poaching the rest (with exculpatory attributions) from Reddit and Tumblr — their business model is the monetization of other people’s stuff. The story — golden showers, FSB plants, and all — is delivered to the public on the authority of some sourceless sheets of paper. When Trump went on Twitter to refute the claims, he linked to an article on LifeZette, a site almost nobody had previously heard of. “LifeZette’s mission,” the site explains, “is contained in its moniker: Life.”
There are good journalists who work for BuzzFeed, but that’s because BuzzFeed can afford them. In the end, the difference between BuzzFeed and LifeZette isn’t their orientation to the truth, but their size.
After all, once you start talking about fake news, it’s hard to insulate mainstream media outlets from the epithet. There is no such thing as neutrality, of course. The networks and newspapers were as partisan in their rejection of Trump as the teenage Macedonians spinning made-up stories were in his favor. Mainstream media, too, love outlandish conspiracy theories and claims of large-scale election-rigging, even if this time the culprit is the Russian government and not the New World Order.
Far more than the tiny mushrooming fake news sites, major outlets have to be held accountable for Trump’s rise to victory. Every new salacious detail brought them readers and ratings. They kept on giving him free and disproportionate publicity long after the danger of his ideology was apparent. As CBS head Les Moonves said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
These same outlets happily reproduced stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction because a president told them it was true. Journalists who disagreed, like Phil Donahue, were silenced or made to suffer. The Obama government has locked up whistleblowers; he personally intervened to prevent the release of the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye.
Trump’s threat to the freedom of the press is very real and very dangerous, but he didn’t build these weapons himself.
In a month’s time, when President Trump dictates the truth from a gold and marble throne, it will only be the completion of a process that has been going on for a very long time. The mainsteam media is playing much the same game as the fake news sites, but they’re losing. They’re fired.