CNN has been playing a dangerous game this week as things have gone off the rails between the Trump administration and the major media entities not named FNC. Trump has been on the warpath over a series of damaging and in many cases self-inflicted negative stories have been hitting the wires just about every day this week and the whole thing hit a low note with the President’s press conference yesterday…the worst press conference by a national public official that I can remember seeing.
Trump has been really banging the “fake news” drum because it plays to his base and because he apparently doesn’t know the definition of the term “self control”.
While most of the entities that have drawn Trump’s ire have continued to plug along doing what they do and letting their reporting speak for itself, CNN has been going its own way and it’s a decidedly bad one.
In a nutshell, CNN has been making Trump’s point for him.
I can point to three things that surfaced this week which have hurt CNN’s and the rest of the media’s cause.
Exhibit A: Video of CNN en Espanol anchor Carmen Aristegui making a gesture that appears to draw an allusion between Trump and Hitler. After watching that gesture on the video several times I cannot rule out what The Daily Caller’s Betsy Rothstein suggests Aristegui did.
Exhibit B: CNN’s Donald Trump Valentine Card generator
Exhibit C: CNN’s Twitter account linking to a video basically mocking Trump’s various gestures. What does CNN think it is? Mediaite?
Of the three, the Hitler allusion is the worst but it’s also the one that is the least germane because Aristegui doesn’t work for CNN US and because the clip is from last November. If it had been any CNN US anchor that did it there would be headlines blazing.
But the other two happened this week and both are in poor taste. Worse, they help make Trump’s case that CNN is the enemy and is fake news.
We are in the middle of a war here. The war is going to decide what happens to the Fourth Estate. What makes this war difficult to fight, particularly with this occupier of the White House and his fast and loose handling of basic facts that make Clintonian speech look positively antiquated, is that this is not really a substantive fight.
If this were a substantive fight, it would have been over already and a course correction would be ordered by Trump to turn what up until now has been the worst rollout of a Presidency in generations with all the screw ups, horrible PR, self-inflicted wounds, roaming far and wide off the reservation, and…yes I’ll say it…lying.
But this isn’t a substantive fight. It’s an optical fight and the rules are different.
The substance doesn’t matter. Reagan had the Teflon presidency. Nothing stuck to him. That’s not happening with Trump (so far). The stuff is sticking hard and his poll numbers show it. It just doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because Trump is a master of distraction and has been able to optically fight this even while substantively taking on loads of baggage. He just plays at his base and other fellow travelers by bringing up Conservative stereotypes. Trump yells, “fake news” and even those who look sideways at how his administration has handled things so far will nod knowingly because they either feel aggrieved or have felt aggrieved at one point or another.
This gets into that quicksand that is Media Bias and bubbles and I know better than to go there because it’s too subjective and its a sideshow that will suck all the air out of this discussion. The point is, regardless of the merits, when Trump yells “fake news”, it resonates because some people are looking for those optics.
When you’re in an optical war as the Fourth Estate currently is, anything, no matter how small, can be used against you. You have to be as vigilant as possible to guard against anything that could be either construed or mis-construed as fitting in with the “fake news” narrative.
That’s a tall order for the Fourth Estate because journalism by its very nature is an evolving process. An overwhelming majority of the stories that are currently being used to bolster the “fake news” claim would, in years past, have been viewed as the basic pitfalls of journalism and taken in stride. Those that didn’t would wind up being litigated in court.
But that was then. This is now. And now everyone is wound up so tight on fake news that anything that results in a correction is tagged as “fake”. Flawed headline? Fake news. Wrong date or time? Fake news. Wrong person mentioned? Fake news. Wrong location mentioned? Fake news.
We used to have dividing lines for this stuff. We had categories of journalism where errors and mistakes were dumped in one low crime category and out and out made up stories were dumped into the serious journalistic crimes category (which usually resulted in the perpetrator being fired.)
Those rules are currently inoperative. If there’s one mistake, regardless of the severity…someone somewhere yells “Fake news!”
Those are the optics the Fourth Estate must contend with. It’s easy to throw punches when you set the bar that low. And it makes it harder for journalism to defend itself. But if it’s going to defend itself, it should do so without one hand deliberately tied behind its back.
That’s why CNN making a Trump Valentine generator and linking to someone’s creative critique of Trump’s gestures is so self-defeating in the war over “fake news”. CNN might as well put a banner up on its website and on its Twitter masthead saying, “Yup, we’re the enemy and we’re fake news”.
Journalism can’t eliminate run of the mill mistakes. Those happen all the time. Always have and always will. But journalism, currently locked in a knock down drag out optical fight over “fake news”, can ill afford to hand its critics substance to their optics on a silver platter.
This week, CNN did just that.