KEVIN LEININGER: Media are right to worry about ‘fake news’ charges, but wrong to blame it all on Trump

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Kevin Leininger

“If you watch (a certain network), you are living on a different planet . . . It’s a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country,” the president said in a critique a top White House official defended by promising to “treat them the way we would treat an opponent. We don’t need to pretend that this is the way legitimate news organizations behave.”

The president was Barack Obama and the target was Fox News, which only proves politicians were using claims of “fake news” to invalidate critical coverage long before Donald Trump popularized the phrase that drew a collective editorial rebuke last week from hundreds of newspapers alarmed by his characterization of a free press as an “enemy of the people.”

As someone who’s wanted to be a journalist almost from the day I realized Superman spent most of his time fighting for truth, justice and the American way masquerading as a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, I cherish the First Amendment’s protection of reporters as they exercise their traditional role as watchdogs of public officials. But the editorial campaign led by the Boston Globe surely would have been more successful had it tempered the media’s often-legitimate self-righteous indignation with some equally legitimate self-examination.

Although both Trump and Obama referred to unfriendly journalists as the opposition party, Obama’s “War on Fox News” (as Newsweek described it) was specific and in some ways justified (Fox had wrongly claimed Obama had attended an Islamic school in Indonesia, for example). Trump, as usual, has painted his contempt for the press in overly combative broad strokes, preferring to condemn an entire profession instead of pointing out and correcting specific errors.

But perhaps that’s the whole point. Where Fox News was an exception to the largely favorable and often fawning press Obama enjoyed, many in the “mainstream” media were creating an uniquely negative template for reporting on Trump even before he was elected.

“If you are a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worse racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?” New York Times media columnist James Rutenberg wrote two years ago, suggesting that “normal standards” of journalism no longer apply.

Coincidence or not, 90 percent of the broadcast evening news comments about Trump between Jan. 1 and April 30 of this year were negative, according to the Media Research Center, with the still-unproven Russia collusion story getting 20 percent of the coverage. Conversely, less than 3 percent of the total TV coverage consisted of mostly positive coverage of Trump’s economic agenda, including job growth and tax reform.

“There’s no precedent for a president receiving such a sustained level of negative press over such a long period of time,” the center concluded.

Trump is hardly a typical president: He contradicts himself regularly, is often brash to the point of vulgarity and unlike some predecessors makes little effort to conceal an obvious vanity. The media, unfortunately, often respond in kind even though Trump’s actual record hardly justifies the sort of end-of-the-world hyperbole Rutenberg employed.

It’s worth noting that Trump didn’t coin the term “fake news.” In 2016 it was Rutenberg who complained about the rise of conservative media internet sources “that are eating away at print advertising are enabling a host of faux-journalistic players to pollute the democracy with dangerously fake news. If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how can you have a functioning democracy?”

A good question, but the media’s problem is not just a periodic misstatement of facts but also the selective use of them, as the Media Research Center suggests. Perhaps that’s not surprising: A few years ago the Pew Research Center polled 574 local and nation reporters and discovered that 34 percent identified themselves as liberal and just 7 percent conservative. Even when reporters try to be objective, such group-think can’t help but influence what is reported, and how.

Achieving more philosophical balance in newsrooms probably wouldn’t mollify Trump,, but with a Gallup/Knight Foundation poll showing that adults believe “62 percent of the news they read in newspaper, see on TV or hear on the radio is biased,” it might do more to boost media credibility than another round of coordinated editorials that only reinforced the appearance of collusion — and not by Russians.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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