Editorial: The ‘fake news’ problem

President Donald Trump’s habit of labeling media reports he doesn’t like as “fake news” has real and dangerous consequences, including encouraging some of the world’s worst leaders to do the same.

A story published this week in the New York Times noted that authoritarian dictators from around the globe have taken to dismissing as “fake news” not just stories critical of the leaders but also real reporting on atrocities within their countries. Some examples from the Times story:

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad dismissed an Amnesty International report about prison deaths in Syria by saying, “We are living in a fake-news era.”

President Nicolas Maduro, who is systematically dismantling democracy in Venezuela, said in response to media criticism, “This is what we call fake news today.”

In Myanmar, government officials labeled as fake news reports of a genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims. A security official in Myanmar told the Times, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news.”

Fake news has been used to dismiss and suppress media reports critical of governments in Russia, Turkey, China, Libya, Poland, Thailand, Somalia and other authoritarian nations, the Times reported.

Sadly, Trump seems not to care that the only world leaders willing to join his fake-news chorus are dictators, like Syria’s Assad, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

While Trump dismisses real news as fake, he continues to ignore the problem of actual “fake news.” And why wouldn’t he? After all, thousands of intentionally fake and outrageous stories, authored by Russian operatives and distributed widely on social media, may have influenced the 2016 election in his favor.

Of Trump’s 12 most recent tweets, six referenced fake news. An example from Tuesday: “Wow, more than 90% of Fake News Media coverage of me is negative, with numerous forced retractions of untrue stories. Hence my use of Social Media, the only way to get the truth out. Much of Mainstream Media has become a joke!”

Never before has there been so much information so readily available to so many around the world as there is today. No doubt, some of it is false, written intentionally to mislead and manipulate. But the narrative that Trump has been peddling — that the so-called mainstream media are the primary producers of fake news — is laughably false.

Rather, there is very real, accurate and important news being produced every hour of every day by hard-working, credible journalists performing the critical role of watchdog around the globe. Is some of that news critical of Trump and his administration? Absolutely — as it should be. And Trump should know by now that he can’t escape accountability simply by saying a media report isn’t true.

When Trump so blithely dismisses real news as fake, he demeans the office he holds and legitimizes despots and dictators who do the same. It’s a dangerous and reckless tactic that the president would be wise to abandon.