In a recent interview for his latest book, Fear: Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward told a chilling anecdote. Then again, anyone fortunate enough to get their hands on the bestseller, knows it’s rife with chilling anecdotes. The esteemed reporter talked about an interview he had had with Donald Trump, over two years ago. When Woodward asked Trump (then the Republican presidential nominee) about the role of power, his response was swift. Verbatim, Trump’s response was, “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word – fear.”
This is an individual whose belief is that to achieve and use power one must use fear. That said, this is also the individual at the helm of the most important democracy in the Free World. For the leader of a democratic republic to be lauding fear as a tactic is problematic – very problematic. Hence, what Bob Woodward has called Trump’s “War on Truth“, is apropos indeed. The single most effective method of shaping the truth is controlling information. In our brave new modern age, all distribution of information to the masses comes via the media. For Trump, the most important tactic for his creation of fear is a complete onslaught against the media.
Enter stage left, “fake news”. Since the presidential election, the term “fake news” has entered our collective lexicon. A broad definition of “fake news” is the deliberate spread of false information (or disinformation) with the intent to deceive. Although Trump claimed the term, with his usual absurd bravado, the concept is in fact, very old.
Throughout history, kings, emperors, and leaders of nations have all embraced disinformation. The Roman emperor, Augustus, used a campaign of disinformation against his rival Mark Antony (of Antony and Cleopatra fame). Augustus circulated rumors that Antony was a womanizer, drunkard, and puppet to Cleopatra. The Roman populace was enraged by such revelations. In the end, Antony killed himself upon hearing disinformation that Cleopatra had committed suicide.
Truth be told, the history of fake news has often had far more horrible repercussions.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, powers that be within the Roman Empire instigated an onslaught of false stories about Christians. Of course, this disinformation often sordid in detail birthed Christian persecution. Likewise, historians have amassed false stories about Jews dating back since the 12th century. These bogus stories (often sordid in detail) are considered the basis of anti-Semitism. The Nazi propaganda machine relied on the spread of false stories (again, often sordid) and everyone knows that horrific outcome.
The distortion of the truth has long been a tactic of disinformation. The reversal of truth, spinning of conspiracies, and creating confusion have all been an effective means of instilling fear. Refer once again, to Bob Woodward’s assertion of the Trump “War on Truth”.
With the invention of the printing press over 500 years ago, also came the concept of news. During those early days, there was no journalistic code of ethics. In fact, there was no objectivity to speak of at all. Fake news has long been entrenched in journalism. By the mid-17th century, publications printed in England and colonial America were rife with fabricated, sensationalist stories. Purveyors of these publications all had agendas, be they political, religious, or economic.
In the 19th-century, journalism had become a wild, wild West, as it were. Publishers interpreted and tailored stories to what they believed their readers would want to read. Newspapers fabricated stories with the underlying sentiment that readers would choose fact or fiction. Yet, there was always the understanding that readers would make up their own minds. Those looking for the facts (or truth, for that matter) had to pay attention. This was the age of “yellow journalism” – a golden age for fake news. These were newspapers that used fabricated headlines and stories to increase readership.
By this juncture, it was evident that journalism was in crisis. At the turn of the 20th century, everything changed thanks to The New York Times. There was a collective decision at the publication to embrace objectivity. A concerted effort implemented checks and balances in reporting, thus a code of ethics in journalism was introduced. Objectivity and neutrality in journalism became the prevailing idea, and a legitimate press began to emerge.
Enter stage left, the 2016 US presidential election. Since that watershed moment, the term “fake news” has morphed into a wholly different entity. Commandeered by Trump and his ilk, the term has now become any reporting they disagree with or don’t care for. In fact, Trump even went so far as tweeting in May 2018 that negative news about him equaled fake news. This is disconcerting, to say the least. Never before has an administration been so fervent in its undermining of the press.
The Trump administration has been exacting in its efforts to diminish journalism and the pursuit of the truth. As a tactic, Trump has cultivated the notion that the press and media at large are untrustworthy. The major tenant to democracy is a free press endeavored to truth-telling. An ever-increasing segment of the populace is experiencing a failing trust in legitimate news and media outlets. Suffice to say, we are now in a very dangerous territory.
What for his meticulous quest for the truth, Bob Woodward and his Washington Post colleague, Carl Bernstein broke Watergate. Their crucial contributions in reporting the scandal revealed the unlawful and unacceptable conduct of the Nixon administration. Likewise with Fear: Trump in the White House, in a meticulous quest for the truth, Woodward reveals disturbing facts about the current president. We must maintain vigilance, with skeptical yet open minds. Democracy is dependent on us.