Political categorizations and the concept of fake news
Lately and strangely in electronic reader responses to my editorial column, I have had hurled against me an accusation of being a purveyor of “fake news” anytime I have critiqued the current resident of the Oval Office. What is interesting about this characterization is that first of all an editorial column is simply one man’s opinion and thus does not fall into the category of news reporting. Secondly, any quotes to support my assertions are verbatim from the president’s own tweets or legitimate primary or secondary sources.
Actually, the indictment of writers and reporters as being instruments of fake news by the Donald or his followers are ironic in that the president has manipulated the flow of news to his own advantage in the campaign.
Given today’s political atmosphere, it is warranted to reflect upon the ongoing war between the fourth estate and Donald Trump. The current presidential administration is often criticized by the modern press for their diminishment of journalists. However, the Trump administration is by no means the first to be at odds with a vibrant and active press. Nor have recent campaigns been the first example of political competitors using the press as cudgels on their opponents.
The first amendment of the United States Constitution views the press as essential to the very existence of our democracy. And in totalitarian regimes throughout world history the cornerstone of their reigns were the suppression of free expression. Yet politicos lambaste the press as being culpable for their own unfavorable public perceptions here in our country.
Equally frustrating is the penchant of those who disagree with others politically to attempt to categorize those expressing opposing comments as either “liberal” or “moderate,” or “conservative” or “progressive.” I would portent that most thinking people are liberal on some issues, moderate on others, and conservative on some aspects of their beliefs.
Erroneously, if a newsperson or editorialist finds fault with the current president he or she is often pilloried by the administration and its supporters. Also, the Trump criticizer is presumptively deemed to necessarily be a supporter of either Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama. There is not usually a positive correlation between the criticisms and erstwhile support for former presidents or candidates. Sometimes Americans merely take umbrage with a certain politician’s policies or character. The complainer’s standpoints do not necessarily translate to an endorsement of their opponent. This error in interpretation often happens in the minds of supporters of President Trump.
It might surprise many to know that the first presidential campaign in which the accusations of fake news were spoken was the race of 1800 between President John Adams (Federalist) and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican). Unfortunately, the tenor of the race went far beyond the legitimate issues of a strong centralized federal government (which Adams favored) versus a states rights viewpoint that Jefferson held dear. Also a valid point of debate was the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts forged under Adams. However, these relevant issues were eclipsed by nonsense.
Newspapers of the era that were under Jefferson’s influence printed stories of Adams supposed dictatorial manner, his duplicity in the treatment of cabinet officials, and his unmanly affectations. One paper offered “proof” that Adams was actually a hermaphrodite (an organism with the sex organs of both genders). Another paper under Democratic-Republican control insinuated that Adams was a cross-dresser.
Along the same line, papers, pamphlets, and posters were chock full of the inconsequential in the presidential election of 1884. US Senator James G. Blaine (R-ME) conducted a campaign concentrating on his opponent New York Governor Grover Cleveland’s personal behavior as a bounder. Cleveland had a reputation as a ladies man and was rumored to have illegitimate children. Ads and posters seldom mentioned the vital issues of precious metal backing of currency, growing unionism, or prohibition. Instead there were pictures of a child crying exclaiming “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House Ha, Ha, Ha!” In response, Cleveland’s campaign called attention to the “Mulligan Letters.” These letters supposedly proved Blaine had sold his influence in congress to businessmen. So, ads and articles showed the following rhyme: “James G. Blaine, Continental Liar from the State of Maine.” A Boston newspaper with ties to Blaine warned America on what salacious high jinks might take place with that rascal Grover living on Pennsylvania Avenue. Some how, Mr. Cleveland won the presidency in the closest presidential election until the 2000 election one hundred and sixteen years later.
Similarly in the election of 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive) accused then current President William Howard Taft (Republican), of being a “puzzle-wit.” Western states newspapers depicted the incumbent Taft as too confused to find his shoes and too fat to put them on. Papers friendly to Teddy ran many stories on how Taft was a bad horseman and kept falling off due to his girth. The concentration on the superfluous between Roosevelt and Taft resulted in Democrat Governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson ascending to the presidency.
One can see that Donald Trump’s assertions of “Crooked Hillary” being of suspicious character were nothing new, nor were Clinton’s accusations of Trump’s mental instability. One could argue that Trump’s marketing genius during the primary campaign where he defined his opponents as “Lying Ted” (Texas Senator Ted Cruz) or “Little Mario” (Florida Senator Marco Rubio) or during the general campaign when he successfully depicted Hillary as an opportunistic and condescending figure, won him the election. So, the fake news that the president rails against now has served him before when he was manipulating the flow of information to his own ends.
Additionally, along with the concept of fake news is the knee-jerk categorization of anyone who is critical of the current president being instantly thought to be a supporter of Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama. Contemplative people who examine politics participate in discourse about issues. Thus, one can be a fiscal conservative while simultaneously being a social liberal and as a result agree with Mr. Trump on some economic matters and agree with Mr. Obama on some social issues. One can believe in preserving retirement Social Security and still condemn unfettered welfare. One can believe in a strong educational system and still oppose the guarantee of free meals, after school care, and free college tuition. Simply, categorizing someone as a liberal Democrat because they do not support a portion of what the Trump administration is trying to accomplish is as faulty as questioning someone’s conservative Republican credentials because they want a balanced federal budget, yet they still support a woman’s right to choose. A parallel can be drawn when pundits anticipate the “Black Vote” or the “Hispanic Vote” in both local and general elections. The scenarios assume a “group think” (one political mind in lock step among a great number of people) that may not be accurate. Historically when Irish Immigrants gained the right to vote in the late 1800s, politicos often misestimated the Irish Vote in city elections in Chicago, New York, and Boston. The Irish were more individualistic than political movers and shakers had anticipated.
Trump voters may suffer from a stronger “group think” than the Irish of yesteryear or the Blacks and Latinos of today. Trump voters were yearning for a leader to lead them out of the abyss of rampant social program growth, widespread unchecked illegal immigrants, and the expatriation of American manufacturing. Hopefully, Trump will grow into the man they were looking for.
However when anyone, this editorialist included, criticizes our president do not attempt to categorize that person. Do not instantly hurl the now iconic “fake news” label so freely. Do not assume the criticizer is a supporter of an opposing party or candidate to Mr. Trump. All of us need to analyze every issue specifically, regardless of party inclination.
We cannot count on our politicians for complete honestly. We cannot count on our press for absolute unbiased reporting. But we can count on ourselves for honest scrutiny of the issues that affect our lives. Name calling and categorization is counterproductive.