When Donald Trump first started accusing the mainstream media of dealing in “fake news,” it was impossible to know the long-term effects of this rhetoric. It seemed like just another of his trademark insults.
But the term – and the bad will behind it – quickly morphed into a political weapon, with ruinous effects both here and overseas.
Officials with an autocratic bent around the globe snatched up the idea to mock the press or to deny ugly truths. By late 2017, for instance, a state official in Myanmar was using the term to deny not only the shameful persecution of a Muslim minority group, but that population’s very existence: “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news.”
And here in the United States, the “fake news” slam has been yelled at local TV reporters trying to cover a protest and deployed to diminish newspaper reporters who have uncovered political wrongdoing.
From Trump’s point of view, this toxic cynicism amounts to mission accomplished. The entire point of his disparagement – as when he called journalists “scum” or “the enemy of the people” – was pre-emptive self-protection, as he admitted shortly before the 2016 election, according to CBS’s Lesley Stahl: ” ‘I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.’ “
Now with a new administration coming into power next month, there may be a temptation to shrug off all this damage. To say, in effect, “Well, that’s over – let’s get back to normal.”
But that won’t be nearly enough. The culture isn’t going to repair itself just because an outrageous president has left office.
“The Biden administration needs to get out there quickly and clearly communicate that it stands for press freedom,” Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me. The task, as he put it in a CPJ white paper, “is urgent, critical and demanding.”
Trump’s rhetoric has had frightening real-world consequences. A record number of journalists around the world were imprisoned over the past four years, some penalized for publishing “false news” as a result of new laws to punish reporting.
And many of us remember all too clearly that the Trump administration enabled the Saudi regime’s coverup of the 2018 murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, protecting Mohammed bin Salman from accountability. Trump was eager to preserve his relationship with an ally, despite the CIA’s conclusion that the crown prince had ordered the assassination.
The record is downright awful.
So what can Biden do, other than act more like a normal president?
Simon argues that the new president should make a major press-freedom speech, soon after taking office, that would place this issue “in the broader context of support for democracy, human rights, and political freedom.”
Biden should then appoint a high-profile journalist with a record of defending press rights to a new role: special presidential envoy for press freedom. This person would report to the secretary of state and carry the president’s imprimatur to speak out about violations around the world. This would send a loud, powerful message. Biden has already signaled his commitment to confronting the ravages of climate change by appointing former secretary of state John Kerry as a special envoy on that crucial topic.
Simon isn’t the only one thinking about what Biden needs to do. Alan Miller, the former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter who founded the News Literacy Project, summed up his recommendations in a recent column about how best to fight back against the “alternative realities” that have become such a destructive part of American culture: “Bring back the daily press briefings. Make Biden available through periodic news conferences and interviews with a wide range of outlets. Tell the truth.”
Miller warns, too, against repeating the Obama administration’s bad habits of “opposing the release of public information and cracking down on government leaks.” As I wrote last month, the Obama team’s deeply flawed record on press freedom laid the groundwork, in some ways, for the harm Trump did.
After interviewing Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris last week, CNN’s Jake Tapper reflected, on air, about what a far cry their demeanor was from Trump’s. When asked uncomfortable questions, they didn’t respond with “the attack that we in the Fourth Estate have been used to.” That’s a welcome change.
But Trump has set such a low bar that anything approaching normal may look pretty good. With so much damage done, in the United States and around the world, there needs to be a much more affirmative approach.
There’s a great opportunity here. Biden should raise that low bar. Raise it high.