Meanwhile, in the crowded and information-rich wilds of the internet, the news cycle is as close to “real time” as technology has ever allowed it to be. “Fake news” isn’t a new concept—there was a fake news crisis in the 19th century—but the pace of the news and the scale at which hoaxes can be made and distributed is certainly a complicating factor. Traditional media gatekeepers haven’t just lost their monopoly on publishing and distribution technologies—they’ve lost institutional prestige and public trust. The loss of cultural influence among the American press benefits the Trump administration, which is clearly focused on attempts to goad reporters. “I want you to quote this,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s top White House strategist and the former chairman of Breitbart News, told The New York Times on Wednesday. “The media here is the opposition party.” Trump himself encourages the denigration of American journalism twofold: he criticizes legitimate news organizations as “fake,” and he pushes sensational claims from fringe sites.
“The pragmatic problem with official lies is their amoeba-like penchant for self-replication,” writes Eric Alterman in his book, When Presidents Lie. “The more a leader lies to his people, the more he must lie to his people.”
“Lying may appear to work for a president in the short term and, in many cases, it does,” Alterman says. “But a president ignores the consequences of his deception at his own political peril.”
If this is a problem for Trump, he seems unbothered by it. So far Trump appears far more interested in holding news organizations accountable.
With frequent dialogue among editors, reporters, and readers on social platforms, and with sites like NewsDiffs—which tracks how online articles are edited by showing side-by-side comparison of changes—scrutinizing the press is possible like never before. The internet has given news consumers a more privileged view of how journalism is produced: They can see how new information is added, the social context around corrections appended, and follow conversations about when and why headlines are tweaked. The business of news gathering is, at its core, a mission of truth seeking—and it’s a messy one. Trump, for his part, seems less interested in journalistic nuance and more concerned with coverage that offends his ego. So concerned that, in the 1980s and 1990s, he was known to call journalists and pretend to be a publicist named John “vigorously defending” Trump, as The Washington Post put it. The Post described that stunt as masquerading, not lying, for what it’s worth.
Today, the challenge of figuring out what is real—and often doing so before an audience in real time—is why journalists must be careful, as ever, with facts and words. Fairness matters. But so do accuracy and credibility. Which is why it’s just as important for journalists to call a lie “a lie” when they hear one.