Danielle McLaughlin: The Trump whisperer, fake news and Acosta accosted
OPINION: Fox News and its number one star Bill O'Reilly have parted ways following revelations of sexual harassment allegations and payouts against him. The media has been filled with the obvious stories. O'Reilly's sometimes rocky tenure. Speculation on the up-and-comers who might take his primetime spot.
One article stood out. An astute piece from Chris Cillizza of CNN explaining that O'Reilly had created Donald Trump. Cillizza described how in the 1990s, O'Reilly led the way recasting conservatism as populist, anti-establishment and non-PC. A phoenix, if you will, that eschewed the mainstream media, and rose from the fire (that it probably set) consuming the stuffy elitism of old conservatism. This, and other developments in the news this week, reminded me that if the darlings of modern conservative media helped create Trump, the kingpins of fake news now sustain him.
At a White House event on Monday, President Trump needed a little shove from the First Lady before he remembered to put his hand on his heart during the national anthem. His bungle was ridiculed (unfairly, I think) by detractors. But it was nothing compared to a 10-year-old boy who photo bombed CNN reporter Jim Acosta as he reported live from the lawn. As Acosta relayed a Q&A with Trump over North Korea, the boy popped out from behind him and appeared to yell "fake news!" into the camera.
CNN isn't fake news. Certainly, it's not perfect. But it's a reputable media organisation with thousands of journalists in the US and around the world. I've sat in CNN green rooms and spoken in CNN studios. There's no underlying conspiracy to hoodwink viewers or spread falsehoods. So what struck me about the accosting of Acosta was not how precocious it was. But how dark it felt. A few days later on air at Fox Business Network, my Republican counterpart expressed glee that the boy was a future member of the GOP. Maybe I'm kidding myself. But this isn't – and can't become – political.
Fake news outlets publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation, while purporting to be legitimate news organisations. Take Infowars.com for example. Its founder, Alex Jones, has suggested that the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre didn't happen. That the moon landing was US Government propaganda. That 9/11 was an inside job.
Jones made the "real" news this week. In the midst of a custody battle for his three children, Jones' lawyer told a Texas court that Jones is a "performance artist" who plays a character. He was painted into this corner because Jones' wife said he was unstable (reviewing YouTube footage of Jones taking his clothes off in protest of government surveillance, it's easy to see why). Jones tried to thread the needle by saying he wasn't trying to trick the public, but the damage was done. I expect some alt-right Infowars fans got a rude shock upon hearing this. The rest of us just shook our heads. Jones' website reaches about 5 million people a month. His YouTube channel has 2 million subscribers. And his conspiracy theories have been elevated by the US president, who, like the ten year old on the White House lawn, slams CNN as "fake news". On the campaign trail, Trump parroted Jones, suggesting that President Obama founded Islamic State. Once in office, Trump echoed Jones' "deep state" fears and repeated Jones' claim that the mainstream media under-reports terrorist attacks.
In a democracy where freedom of speech is guaranteed, I can't make the case that Jones doesn't get to have his say. But the poison he has spewed for years foments discord and mistrust. And this poison found a champion in Trump, a candidate who exploited the fears of and divisions among Americans on his way to the top job.
This is not to say that media is neutral. It incorporates and projects the inherent biases of the people that work within it. In England, compare The Times and The Guardian. In the U.S., compare O'Reilly's Fox News with Cillizza's CNN. I have experienced it first hand as a political commentator. At CNN, my views are in the mainstream. At Fox, I am the counter-point. The "loony liberal" as Sean Hannity likes to say (I consider it a badge of honour).
But media bias isn't the problem. The problem is characterising real news as fake news while elevating conspiracies as legitimate reporting.
I hope someone sets that 10-year-old boy straight. And the US President.
Follow Danielle on Twitter: @MsDMcLaughlin
- Sunday Star Times