Philippe Reines: Serious news outlets must resist the "Fake News" label
Outlets should be clearer about opinion and call a lie a lie, he writes
Editor’s Note: Philippe Reines has been a spokesman and adviser to Hillary Clinton since 2002, including acting as Donald Trump’s stand-in for her 2016 debate preparations. He is currently writing two books; one about his tenure and the Trump presidency, the other a children’s book about the White House and presidential pets. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The havoc Donald Trump’s presidency has wreaked will take years to fully understand, let alone recover from. High on the list of things to undo will be the damage done by two words: Fake News.
As Sen. Jeff Flake said this week, “We were not made great as a country by … calling fake things true and true things fake.”
And almost half the country won’t believe him.
Because only nine months into a Trump presidency that followed what must be the ugliest and most confusing campaign in our history, we find ourselves in a world where facts face extinction. But without them, there can be no compromise, no consensus. We must resist.
The real onus for this lies with the media. But though reporters, editors and news organizations are trying harder than ever before to get it right – if for no other reason than out of self-defense – they have to do better. And faster.
Weather forecasting isn’t perfect. But if Trump walked around yelling “Fake Weather,” he wouldn’t get very far. If he repeated, over and over, “Fake Sports” – same problem.
But “Fake News” has been a powerful line of attack for Trump because it’s tapping into the country’s existing doubts about the news media’s fairness and accuracy. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that 46% of Americans believe the media fabricate stories about Trump. It also found that 76% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats believe that.
They believe the media make things up because Trump says it incessantly and without shame.
There are reasons to be dubious of the news media. Some of the industry’s troubles are of its own making. But when three-quarters of one of the two main political parties believe the entire industry is telling lies, that’s a huge problem.
News outlets should start with a few simple changes:
First, make it clearer when someone is presenting opinion. This piece began with an italicized sentence telling you who I am. I’m not a reporter; I’m just some guy – one with political ties. You should know that before you read my words. You might not make it to the bottom of what I write, so it should be clear at the very top. CNN appears to be alone among major news outlets in this smart and easy practice, one everyone should follow.
Second, rein in reporters on social media. The editorial standards of an outlet must apply to tweeting no differently than reporting. Second sourcing, review by editors, appropriate language. If they couldn’t write it for the paper or say it on air, it’s not suitable for social media. And there is no such thing as a reporter speaking in his or her personal capacity. Such nuance was lost long ago. Some, like The New York Times, have recently begun to address this problem.
Third, stop broadcasting the White House’s daily briefing live. It has become a forum for nothing more than the spokesperson to read aloud the President’s tweets. Reporters should determine what news, if any, emerges from a briefing, and report it, as they would for any evolving story. Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders have no credibility. None. Stop letting them lie with impunity on live TV.
Fourth, if the briefings must be televised, identify who is asking the question. Give the viewer more information to assess credibility. This one is simple since they sit in the same seats every day.
Fifth, make it clearer which talking heads are journalists, which are partisan hacks, which are paid shills. Colored hats would do the trick, but using clearer “chyrons” – the captions and graphics that appear at the bottom of your screen – is a good start.
Sixth, do a better job of acknowledging and explaining mistakes. Since there are no longer tiebreakers to mediate, A must admit A was wrong. Same with B. Because readers of A won’t believe B, and vice versa.
Lastly, call it like it is. When the President lies, use the word “lie.” Drop euphemisms like “casual relationship with the truth.” I know news media want to be respectful. But Trump has made that impossible. And he’s using euphemisms and indirect language to his advantage. It might be repetitive, but when Trump lies, say it. He lies.
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These are mere Band-Aids. And this doesn’t begin to address those who cite Fake News out of the dangerous combination of intellectual laziness and political obstinance. Nor does it even begin to address the inclination of so many refusing to give up their conspiracy theories. Never in the history of man has one been debunked to the satisfaction of the believer.
But there are good reasons we use Band-Aids. We do so to prevent the wound from worsening, spreading or growing into a serious infection that could kill the patient.
They don’t always work. But they never hurt.