Fake News, Credibility, and Press Gaggles: Is Trump’s War on the Media Character Assassination?

Arlington, VA – Researchers, academics and news media professionals gathered for the Character Assassination and Reputation Politics (CARP) Lab’s “Character Assassination and the Media Spectrum” panel on March 4 to discuss President Donald Trump’s dogged criticism of the news media and the implications of his sometimes strained relationship with the press following statements by the president on Twitter and at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference describing the “fake news media” as the enemy of the American people.
“On the one hand, this is a term that even Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev condemned as being too toxic, because in his words it ‘eliminates the possibility of any kind of ideological fight,’” said Richard Sheehe, the panel’s moderator and a former White House correspondent for the NBC radio network. “On the other hand, we could see this term as a form of hyperbole, a political characterization that’s just a matter of personal or rhetorical style.”
“It’s kind of unexpected that the president of a democracy would use that term to describe the media, which is kind of an essential part of holding leaders accountable” said POLITICO’s Daniel Lippman, who referred to his organization being excluded from a recent White House press gaggle as a “badge of honor.”
Lippman added that he believes that Trump’s accusations against the media are part of a concerted character assassination strategy aimed at discrediting the media and influencing the press to report less critically on his administration. Washington Examiner Editorial Director Hugo Gurdon disagreed however, arguing that Trump’s accusations lack adequate intention and malice to be classified as character assassination.
“You can debate that what he’s saying is true, and I think most people would probably regard it as false, but it isn’t character assassination because he believes that it is true that a lot of the media are part of the entrenched power structure and that was what he was sent to Washington to overturn.”
“There are people in the media that are not referees. They’re antagonists towards the president. And that, I think, helps him,” added The Hill’s Editor-in-Chief Bob Cusack. “That’s not everybody, and that doesn’t mean that everybody is biased against him, but he’s able to go after certain outlets or certain reporters who have been wrong at every turn about what [he] was going to do.”
Lake Research Partners’ Director of Digital Research Alan Rosenblatt argues otherwise, and claims that Trump’s accusations could have dangerous consequences beyond the media.
“It’s not just about assassinating the character of the media. What the attacks on the media is doing is setting a precedent for making such attacks based on a mistake in a story here, some isolated examples of mistakes from outlets that are by and large very accurate and then using that as a criteria to declare them fake and to declare them an enemy”.
Rosenblatt argues that this methodology could not only provide the Trump administration with a way to plant fake news stories in the media, but also to assassinate the character of critics within the media and outside of it.

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