Ever since Trump’s Presidency began, he has commandeered the term “fake news” to use for his own ends. It might seem ages ago, but the term “fake news” was first popularly used (in recent times – there is actually a pretty long history of the term) to describe Russian interference in the election, in Donald Trump’s favor:
When he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, former FBI agent Clint Watts described how Russians used armies of Twitter bots to spread fake news using accounts that seem to be Midwestern swing-voter Republicans.
“So that way whenever you’re trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it’s much more simple because you see somebody and they look exactly like you, even down to the pictures,” Watts told the panel, which is investigating Russia’s role in interfering in the U.S. elections.
Watts says the effort is being conducted by a “very diffuse network.” It involves competing efforts “even amongst hackers between different parts of Russian intelligence and propagandists — all with general guidelines about what to pursue, but doing it at different times and paces and rhythms.”
Trump, of course, heard this term and decided to give it his own meaning, instead applying it to any legitimate news outlet that might dare criticize him.
One of his favorite tactics in deeming a legitimate news story “fake news” has been if the story used an anonymous source. To him, the fact that the source was anonymous meant that the source just simply didn’t exist at all. Of course, he was openly ignoring the fact that legitimate news operations are in fact quite leery of using anonymous sources, knowing full well that if an anonymous source was found to be lying, their integrity as a news source could take a hit. As such, they have taken great efforts to verify the veracity of the claims made by anonymous sources prior to publishing. For example, here is a public airing of a policy for dealing with anonymous sources that was shared by the NY Times, from well before Donald Trump began his use of the phrase “fake news” and his vendetta against anonymous sources:
The use of anonymous sources is sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.
At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us. In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable. But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda. In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism — and it has turned out to be wrong.
The use of anonymous sources presents the greatest risk in our most consequential, exclusive stories. But the appearance of anonymous sources in routine government and political stories, as well as many other enterprise and feature stories, also tests our credibility with readers. They routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.
After consulting with a number of our most experienced reporters and editors, we have decided to take several steps to raise the bar and provide added scrutiny for our use of anonymous sources. These new guidelines require top editors to approve the use of anonymity. But it is incumbent on everyone producing journalism throughout the newsroom to share the responsibility.
As can be seen, anonymous sourcing has been treated very carefully by legitimate news organizations such as the NY Times. This has not, however, stopped Donald Trump from claiming that any story with an anonymous source is automatically “fake news”:
“The fact is that many anonymous sources don’t even exist. They are fiction made up by the Fake News reporters,” the president wrote on Twitter. “Look at the lie that Fake CNN is now in. They got caught red handed! Enemy of the People!”
“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” Trump wrote.
Unleashing a line of attack that energized an enthusiastic crowd at the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists, Trump said Friday that unethical reporters “make up stories and make up sources.”
“They make the sources up. They don’t exist in many cases,” he claimed, falsely. “Any time you say — you know, I saw one of them said ’15 anonymous sources’ — I don’t have 15 people in the White — I mean, forget it.”
But, the recent anonymous op-ed in the NY Times must have rattled Donald Trump so badly that he completely forget that he has been saying for months that anonymous sources are just “fabricated” and “fiction” and “don’t exist”. Because, instead of shrugging off the anonymous source in the NY Times story as being made up, he has instead decided to instruct everyone in the White House to find out who the anonymous source could be:
Trump is still “obsessed” with finding the person, though he is being counseled by White House chief of staff John Kelly to let it pass, to avoid bringing more attention to the claims in the op-ed. The opinion piece was written by an anonymous senior administration official alleging an internal resistance to the President in his own administration.
Trump has even now insisted that the Justice Department join the search for the anonymous source:
“I think it is national security. I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece is because I really believe it is national security,” the president told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to a campaign appearance in Fargo, ND.
“We’re going to take a look at what he had, what he gave, what he’s talking about, also where he is right now.”
If the official has a high-level security clearance, Trump said: “I don’t want him in those meetings.”
As so often happens with Donald Trump, he is incapable of sticking with his initial lies. In this case, it was his oft-repeated lie that anonymous sources simply didn’t exist. Now, in his ire to extract vengeance upon the latest anonymous source, he has made it quite publicly known that the anonymous source most certainly does exist. And, in doing so, he is basically acknowledging that the NY Times did report a real statement from a real person.
In other words, the NY Times was reporting real news, not “fake news”.