Journalists wrestling Trump for the truth: Fake News and a Post-Truth society?

English: Donald Trump at a press conference wi...

English: Donald Trump at a press conference with David Blaine announcing Blaine’s latest feat, The Upside Down Man, in New York City at the Trump Tower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jay Rosen in his article (“The Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press.”) has hit upon two important truths about the Trump presidency, the press and the problem of “fake news”.[1]

First, Trump like any political leader is trying to replace the reality created by the press with his reality. Instead of a shared reality, when both seek to create a truth together, we have both sides trying to create their own version of reality with Trump insisting that what does not agree with or confirm his view of reality is “fake news”. All political leaders work with a future reality. They propose policies to create a future and they work with the public to create that future or they have to work to overcome their resistance which is based on a different view of that future reality. What shapes their future reality is how they understand reality. They begin with their own cognitive ability, which is influenced by other forces. The largest external influence on a politician is the media who supply information, opinions, as well as feedback or criticisms on the politician’s vision as expressed in policies and legislation. What Trump is doing, though, goes beyond this because he wants to replace the shared reality with his reality. He wants to impose his reality on the country starting with the press. By contrast, the media who see that Trump is unmoored from the shared reality try to connect him to a shared reality based on facts that reflect reality.

The struggle between the press and presidents is a reason, as Rosen explains, the public have less trust in the media and the government. The public’s trust in the media and the government have declined as the public are caught in the struggle to define reality and in their view neither side captures what they experience. What they see is that each side has its own agenda which relies on a selective approach to the public so that a shared reality is not being created. At a basic level, the public no longer see either party trying to co-create a description of reality so much as to present their reality, or truth, which will be imposed on those who would disagree. For the public, who support their candidate or simply dislike the media, when the journalists say “X” is the story, the public, especially in the social media age, can get other sources, as well as their own experience, that indicates that the story is not “X” but is “Y “or is “XY” but more than “X”. At that moment, they will believe the journalist to be wrong, misinformed, or more importantly-lying. They dismiss the media not for having an opinion that they can evaluate, even though some may lack the capacity to evaluate the media’s claims, but because they see the media as lying. As soon as the media do not correspond to their view of reality, or the reality proposed by their party, candidate, or interest, they dismiss it as a lie.

The source of this problem on both sides is that the news is taken as the reality instead of an appearance based on a reality. In other words, the reporters believe that they report the reality. The politicians believe that what they say is reality. For the public, the reality becomes whatever appears to confirm or conform to their preferences. Where the public live the reality, they become disillusioned with both sides the extent that they fail to reflect their lived reality. Beyond their lived reality, though, the public are caught up in the appearances being created by either side since neither side, at the moment, is tied to facts or an underlying reality that can be access by all parties. In particular, the struggle between both parties serves a deeper purpose. Trump has a convenient excuse, the media or “fake news”, while the media make profits from the conflict that is played out on their pages and platforms. Appearance becomes reality for those who make the news and those who consume it. On many events, the public have no experience or verified understanding so they have to accept the appearances as they created by the media, except where they have a lived reality. The public react to these appearances and accept them as their reality. Thus, they can accept Trump’s claim to hate the press and that the press is the enemy because they accept that appearances are the reality. They confuse appearances with reality. Even if they wanted to transcend appearances, the media have no incentive to disabuse them of the appearances because they benefit from the appearances. However, appearance is not reality nor does appearance create reality. Instead, appearance only covers the reality or clouds the reality. The skill to use appearances to cloud the public’s mind is an idea as old as Machiavelli.

Machiavelli, in his infamous book The Prince wrote the following about the way perceptions or appearances and reality intersect or influence each other.

Men usually judge things by the eye rather than by the hand; everybody gets to see, but few come in touch. Everyone sees what you appear to be, but few feel what you are, and those few don’t have the courage to stand up against the majority opinion which is backed by the majesty of the state. (Chapter 18)[2]

What the press can do, if they want to reinvigorate the public domain as a place for the public to participate, is start to “touch” the president by connecting the president to reality by reporting the facts that either confirm what he has claimed or disprove his claims. In that effort, the press would start to return to the previous role of holding power to account. They are not simply trying to create an alternative to the Trump reality so much as to reveal to the public the reality that Trump is trying to distort or suppress. If done well, their efforts can be used to sustain the common good. Yet, both parties benefit from the gap between the appearance and reality. For their own reasons, neither wants the public to touch Trump. Trump works very hard, and has very aggressive lawyers, to avoid the public and reporters from being able to touch him or uncover the reality about him. Yet, the press has little incentive to do the un-glamourous and financially difficult task to connect Trump and the public to the facts. Which lead us to the deeper problem that Rosen’s article raises.

The deeper problem, as Rosen, alludes is that it is difficult for the press to close the gap. First, the gap makes money. Second, it is hard to close the gap given the nature of what now passes for evidence and reasoning from such evidence. Rosen argues that the solution is that the press change their ways and force the president or the White House to give reasons for their actions.

it’s whether anything journalists do forces the president or the White House to become a little more reality-based, a little more accountable, a little more likely to give reasons for its actions, or to explain what it’s actual policy choices are.[3]

On the surface, this is laudable and appears easy. The journalist simply points to the gap between the appearance, what Trump says about reality, and the reality. At this stage in our democracy, it appears a nearly impossible task. It may occur in a classroom, but rarely in the public domain with Trump. The only example I could find of this approach succeeding was the following. At his first major press conference, a reporter forced Trump to admit that his margin of victory in the electoral college was not the largest since Reagan’s victory.[4] The reporter confronts Trump with the evidence that shows his claim to have the largest electoral collect majority since Reagan is wrong. Trump does not apologize nor does he accept that it was incorrect. He avoids the issue as he says that “someone told him it was the largest margin.” At the press conference, no one else follows up or points out that he had been corrected. Therein we see the first problem. The press rarely challenges the president on his claims since there is no profit in it either financially or politically. They may correct him if he confuses Iraq with Syria, but they will not challenge his claims. The financial part is that the pedestrian work to show Trump is wrong does not garner headlines, clicks, buzz, or whatever metric measures media effectiveness. The second way is that a confrontational approach can jeopardize their access. Although it would be difficult to deny access completely, it could prove problematic for a reporter or a network if their access was limited. These two issues though only look at it from the press perspective. We have to consider how Trump manages the same issue as he works to manage the appearances.

What helps Trump is that he does not have to tell the “truth” as fact checked by the media, he only has to manage the appearance of truth for the public. He shapes a truth, a narrative, that is created by the appearance of what he says which he uses to persuade the public or at least flatter them. For Trump, what is said becomes what is.[5] Anyone who questions him starts at a disadvantage because to question him is a sure sign you disagree with him. If you disagree with him, you will lie about him. In this scenario, only Trump, and those who Trump verifies, tell the truth. Everything else is fake news. Where this can be undone, through patient and rarely rewarded work, is to connect the appearance of truth that he creates with the shared reality understood by all. We saw this when the reporter forced him to accept that his victory margin in the Electoral College was not the largest since Reagan. Only on that basis can Trump be held to account. The attempt to hold him to account by trying to use appearances against him, such as through ridicule, or by a counter “narrative” based on opposing opinions will not work. Once the journalist, or the press, accept that premise, that the issue is decided mainly or exclusively in the realm of appearances, they accept Trump’s premise that the truth is only appearance or what he says it is since they want to say what the truth is what they say it is as well. They will lose in the realm of appearances and their inability to deliver a narrative that flatters the public enough to weaken the public’s support for him.

How Trump answered the question about the Electoral College victory margin gives us an insight into how he deals with bad news or information that does not conform to how he wants to perceive reality. How did he dismiss the question? What he did was say “I was given that information.” He does not take responsibility for it and implies it is someone else’s fault. The response is what his supporters would expect. Trump was given duff information. What matters to his supporters is that Trump won. For Trump, even a single electoral vote is a large margin. To argue that point shows you are a sore loser as you argue about an irrelevant detail because you disagree with the outcome and don’t like Trump. Why else would you question it? Faced with those challenges why would a journalist or an editor want to pursue the point since it will be dismissed, despite the effort, with “I was given that information”?

The realm of appearances, and the belief that what Trump says is “what is” can be seen in Trump’s claim, at the same press conference, that his administration was running like a fine-tuned machine. No one asked him to explain what he meant by fine-tuned or asked him to explain why it was doing so poorly if fine-tuned? If you were to ask Trump to back up his claim, his opinion, that his administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, he would dispute the evidence that contradicts him. Moreover, he would argue that this was your opinion and that it would be dismissed since his opinion is all that matters. If that failed, he would refuse to accept a standard that would allow his opinion to be tested. Without a standard, you have to search for a standard. Once you begin the search for a standard, the journalist, and the public who want to decide between Trump and the press, face another barrier that Trump, and his supporters, raise—the demand for complete evidence linked to a desire to avoid structured arguments.

Even though everyone works and lives with incomplete information, when it comes to political things we find that people demand complete evidence before they will believe a claim. The need for complete evidence is often used by Trump and his followers as part of a common rhetorical technique called “moving the goalposts”. Each time evidence is presented, Trump or his followers demand more evidence, that is “move the goalposts”. We saw this with his claim that President Obama was not born in America. Each time evidence was supplied it was questioned and further evidence was required. If the short-form birth certificate was provided, then the long-form was required. If the long-form was provided, then the persons who authenticated were questioned. At each stage, Trump and his followers insisted that the evidence that was supplied was insufficient. At the same time, they would not accept a common standard by which the claim could be tested. They would not accept that a standard could be accepted that would allow anyone to judge whether the facts corresponded to reality. At each stage, they refused to accept either the standard, the evidence supplied; short-form, long-form, verified newspaper reports, or they would question the veracity of the evidence or the reliability of the people who supplied it. Yet, such an approach is guided by a scepticism that they would not use in any other part of their life. Would the same person demand to see a pilot’s licence before getting on an airplane? Would they demand to see the credentials of the mechanic who serviced the plane? Would they demand the airline prove that its food was not poisoned? Only on the political things they question does it appear they demand complete evidence. Moreover, the demand for complete evidence is linked to the refusal to accept an agreed standard, a structured argument, to resolve the uncertainty or to make a decision based on incomplete information. It is this fear of structured argument, where claims are assessed by an agreed standard such as Occam’s Razor, that makes it difficult to hold Trump and his followers to account as well as sustain a healthy public discourse. However, the public discourse was weakening before Trump came to power, which is where journalists face a particular difficulty in holding power to account.

With the decline in the public discourse, the two barriers mentioned above become much more difficult to overcome. The public have been habituated to what Trump provides as have journalists who can find it easier to navigate the realm of appearances than try to work with facts and structured arguments. If the public want a soundbite or to cheer for their “team”, then the news “market” will reward those who supply that content. The journalists who want to hold Trump or any president to account face a double bind. They must overcome the public who live the realm of appearances, where they want to be entertained or flattered, and they have to challenge Trump on the basis of opinions or appearances while trying to entertain or flatter the public. To do this, the journalists have to connect what he does, not what he says, to the facts. Yet, this is difficult because Trump uses a persuasive rhetoric, which often undermines or attacks the media. One constant refrain is the claim that the media are “fake news” which serves two main purposes. First, it undermines the media’s attempts to hold him to account by questioning their honesty or veracity. Second, it reinforces the idea that Trump alone tells the public the truth. To counter Trump’s rhetoric, journalists need to employ a rhetoric that can convince a public, who are habituated to appearances, opinions, and flattery not rational or structured arguments, and hold Trump to account on facts and arguments. The journalists have to show the gap between what Trump says and what “is”. To show that what he says is empty or is not rooted in facts takes more effort than most journalists and networks will sustain. It can be done, but so infrequently that it has to be reserved for egregious examples where the gap between appearances and reality is so great and so clear that it becomes almost incontestable or, when contested, leads Trump, not the journalist, the network, or the public, into more egregious claims.

If journalists continue to insist on reporting the “palace intrigues” within the administration, they will continue to reside within the realm of appearances. Only when those are connected to facts, clear issues where the gap between appearances and reality is noteworthy, can they hold Trump to account. Where the journalists have succeeded in holding Trump to account are areas such as policies and legislative proposals since those have to be linked to reality, they can be verified, and there is a standard by which they can be judged. Where this works is where the public are ready to be convinced or persuaded such as with the health care reform. In that example, the public were persuaded by the rhetoric and by the facts since both flattered how they understood themselves as well as reflected the reality they lived.

With these issues, the challenge becomes whether journalists and the public want a journalism, and political commentary, rooted in facts and a shared or lived reality that may not flatter them but it will at least serve to sustain a decent public discourse. Without a shared search for the common good neither journalists nor the public will be able to hold the powerful to account for they will be rooted in the desire to be flattered and persuaded which leave them vulnerable to appearances and opinions detached from their shared reality so that they only understand themselves as the powerful want them to be understood rather than how they understand themselves. If the public and journalists are unwilling or unable to work towards this goal, then a shared reality, from which a common good can be discovered and understood, is not possible. What will remain then is a community where the strong do as they will and the weak do as they are told or resist for neither will have seen the other as equals.



[2] (p.38)


[4] See the video at 32:09 to 32: 45. There is simply says “I was given that information.”

[5]  “What permits the sophist to accomplish this feat of forgery is the assumption that what is said is actually is. In other words, sayings are equal to that which is (to on). Hence, words once coupled with deductive reasoning provide a true account of the generic being (i.e. what is).”


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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