A major tactic of the Trump administration is to reject the media in the hopes that Americans will join him in dismissing the platforms that are critical of his actions. Partisan news has existed prior to the election of Donald Trump, but the new administration is actively promoting a framework that rejects verifiable facts and destabilizes the idea of truth. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” have been incessantly invoked by the new administration to dodge and deflect certain accusatory topics. The new political elites, including state government officials, have created an environment where journalistic professionalism is minimized and any demonstration against such a totalitarian takeover is criminalized. Thus, there are three components that are extremely troubling: the manipulative attempt to reframe information in a way that supports a destructive agenda, the dissemination to Americans of the ideological framework that justifies the new policies, and the suppression of dissident action against the new government.
The term “mainstream media” has been used by the Right, including Trump and his supporters, to disparage the news outlets that they believe support Democratic candidates over Republican ones. However, if one looks at the leading sources of news, one will find they are mainly conservative. The top ten most-watched cable news shows in 2016 were all on Fox News and included the evening lineup of conservative commentators Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Tucker Carlson, and Sean Hannity.1 Sean Hannity is also among those in the top ten most-listened-to radio programs, along with conservatives Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin. These shows are primarily commentary and do not report on genuine news. Sean Hannity, who bemoans the death of journalism, freely admits that he is not a journalist.
The professional commentator class has led much of the narrative on politics, which allowed the framework employed by Trump to be widespread and cohesive during the 2016 election season. Now that Trump has entered the White House, the new framework is being consolidated in a powerful position. Knowledge itself is being reworked to fit a political agenda. Trump commenced his presidential tenure by dismissing CNN as “fake news.” In a press conference, as a CNN reporter was trying to ask a question, Trump contemptuously told him, “Don’t be rude. I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”2 Conversely, a front-row seat was saved at the same press conference for a Breitbart News reporter. It was the only seat to be reserved by a Republican National Committee staff member.3 Breitbart News is an internet news outlet that appeals to the rising trend of ethno-nationalists, termed the “alt-Right.” Former head of the news company, Steve Bannon, proudly stated, “We’re the platform for the alt-Right.”4 Bannon is currently White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to Donald Trump. He has recently stated that the media is the “opposition party” and should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”5
The new framework has a platform secured for it and the Trump administration has gone to work filling that platform with talking points. In the first post-inauguration press conference, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was sent out to the podium by President Trump to bolster the inaugural reputation of the new president. He claimed, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration… both in person and around the globe.”6 Moreover, he claimed that even television viewership was highest for Trump’s inauguration than any other. Nielsen ratings shows this to be false.7 Right out of the gate, the American people are being lied to and about very superficial matters. Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, in an interview after Spicer’s press conferences, explained that Spicer was not lying but simply enlightening the public with “alternative facts.”8
Trump recently issued executive orders pertaining to border security and immigration. Trump made this one of his pivotal issues during his presidential campaign. He stated in 2015, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they bring those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”9 This, however, is false. According to sociologist Bianca E. Bersani, first-generation immigrants exhibit far lower rates of crime compared to US citizens born in the country. Second-generation immigrants exhibit higher crime rates that parallel US native-born citizens because of their shared exposure to existing causal factors in society.10 Trump ignores these findings and the economic aspects that contribute to higher crime rates. Instead, he creates a narrative that vilifies immigrants to support his agenda.
Despite the facts against Trump’s allegations of higher criminality among immigrants, his narrative was disseminated into the leading media and popular political discourse. Fox News picked up on it and, during their morning show Fox and Friends, had the conservative commentator Elisabeth Hasselbeck interview a mother, Sabine Durden, whose son was killed in a car accident. The other driver was an undocumented immigrant.11 The story actively sought to imply the same claim that Trump is making about the danger of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Durden also spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016.
Trump’s application of this logic is contingent on “alternative facts.” The President of the United States, the White House Press Secretary, and the leading news media outlets espouses the same distorted narrative. This results in the dissemination of a misguided and divisive framework to American people, and it takes strong root among many on the politically active Right. The phenomenon is interpreted by right-wing partisans as a populist push to make America great again. Thus, it is a crucial component in Trump’s attempt to gain and secure legitimacy. He can remain a populist leader as long as his millions of supporters unwaveringly maintain their skewed logic.
As power is consolidated and a distorted framework is disseminated, more and more people are likely to pose a challenge to this. This popular challenge to authority has been addressed in many states which have proposed bills criminalizing certain protests, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. The Intercept reports that multiple states including North Dakota, Minnesota, Washington state, and Iowa have all introduced bills to crack down on protests. “In North Dakota, for instance, Republicans introduced a bill last week that would allow motorists to run over and kill any protester obstructing a highway as long as a driver does so accidentally. In Minnesota, a bill introduced by Republicans last week seeks to dramatically stiffen fines for freeway protests and would allow prosecutors to seek a full year of jail time for protesters blocking a highway.”12 One can only imagine the impact on history such policies would have had on the revolutionary struggles of the 1960s, including the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March along Jefferson Davis Highway led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Trump and the people who surround him have continued to lie to the American people. A few of these “fake news” topics include the Pew Research Center statistics that Trump incorrectly cites when talking about the millions of undocumented voters whom he alleges voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, giving her the two and a half million more votes than he received; the “Bowling Green Massacre” that Kellyanne Conway cited in an interview, an incident that never occurred; and Trump’s claim that the murder rate in the United States is the highest it has ever been, which is factually incorrect as the murder rate is near its lowest point. It is clear that the Trump administration has no problem lying to the public.
Trump’s divisive actions and rhetoric promote alternative facts and disseminate the framework necessary to substantiate them. The leading news station and popular political commentators safeguard the new president as well as facilitate in the spread of disinformation. A close eye must be kept on the consolidation of political power around a certain distorted narrative as well as the media structures and social forces that buttress such power. The news media has a responsibility to factually report on what is happening in the country and the world. But because of corporatization, the dominant news media of both the Right and the Left are prone to deficiencies and must be checked by movements seeking change. That is why people must study the ideological underpinnings of power and resist them in all forms possible. The public must stand for truth, demand accountability, and deconstruct the narrow-minded frameworks that pervade political discourse.
1. Brian Flood, “23 Most-Watched Cable News Hosts of 2016, From Don Lemon to Megyn Kelly (Photos),” The Wrap, December 28, 2016, http://www.thewrap.com/23-most-watched-cable-news-shows-of-2016-from-don-lemon-to-megyn-kelly-photos/.
2. Donald Trump, quote from video in Andrew Buncombe, “Donald Trump in angry exchange with CNN reporter after President-elect refuses questions” Independent, January 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/donald-trump-cnn-reporter-refuses-question-fake-news-a7522281.html.
3. Mark Hensch, “Breitbart had front-row seat at Trump presser,” The Hill, January 11, 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/313898-ap-breitbart-had-front-row-seat-at-trump-presser.
4. Steve Bannon, quoted in Sarah Posner, “How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones, August 22, 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/08/stephen-bannon-donald-trump-alt-right-breitbart-news.
5. Steve Bannon, quoted in Dylan Byers, “Steve Bannon: Media should ‘keep its mouth shut’,” CNN media, January 26, 2017, http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/26/media/bannon-media-nytimes/index.html.
6. Steve Bannon, quoted in Philip Bump, “There’s no evidence that Trump’s inauguration was the most-watched in history. Period.” The Washington Post, January 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/01/23/theres-no-evidence-that-trumps-inauguration-was-the-most-watched-in-history-period/?utm_term=.2cb15d08023a.
7. Philip Bump, ibid.
8. Kellyanne Conway, quoted in Emily Tess Katz, “Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ comment sparks internet memes,” CBS News, January 23, 2017, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/kellyanne-conway-alternative-facts-internet-memes/
9. Donald Trump, quoted in Michelle Yee He Lee, “Donald Trump’s false comments connection Mexican immigrants and crime,” The Washington Post, July 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/?utm_term=.ffacf04339c0.
10. Bianca E. Bersani, “A Game of Catchup Up? The Offending Experience of Second-Generation Immigrants,” Crime and Delinquency 60 (2014): 61, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0011128713502406.
11. “Mom of Man Killed by Illegal Immigrant: Senators ‘Nodded Off’ at Hearing,” Fox News Insider, July 23, 2015, http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/07/23/mom-man-killed-illegal-immigrant-says-lawmakers-nodded-during-senate-hearing.
12. Spencer Woodman, “Republican Lawmakers in Five States Propose Bills to Criminalize Peaceful Protests,” The Intercept, January 19, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/01/19/republican-lawmakers-in-five-states-propose-bills-to-criminalize-peaceful-protest/.