President Trump Changed Meaning of ‘Fake News’

Panelists at GW discussed fake news and how media consumption affected the 2016 presidential election.

fake news
GSPM Interim Director Lara Brown (left) and Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List and M.A. ’97, discuss the term "fake news" as part of the Paul O’Dwyer Lecture Series. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)
April 30, 2017

By Kristen Mitchell

In the era of President Donald Trump, the label “fake news” has taken on new meaning. Journalists had used the words to describe news reports based on falsehoods or originated from an outlet that ignores traditional journalistic standards.

Mr. Trump has turned “fake news” into a phrase that undercuts news reports his administration simply does not like.

Major Garrett, chief White House correspondent for CBS News, said politicians are always trying to figure out how much they can get away with. The 2016 presidential campaign suggested they have a lot of leeway with facts.

“The president has most frequently invoked fake news or ruse to talk about the Russia story,” he said. “Most frequently if the president or those closest to him want to brand that story as completely irrelevant and unworthy of any further scrutiny, it’s to brand it fake news.”

Mr. Garrett offered his comments Wednesday as journalists and political stakeholders gathered at the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium for a Graduate School of Political Management panel discussion, “Fake News: Spotting Facts and Stopping Fiction.” Lara Brown, GSPM’s interim director, moderated the event, which was part of the Paul O’Dwyer Lecture Series.

George Washington President Steven Knapp, whose remarks opened the event, said he was looking forward to hearing about the “timely topic” from the distinguished panelists. He introduced Brian O’Dwyer, B.A. ’66, LL.M. ’76 and member of the GSPM board of advisers, who founded the lecture series named after his father.

Fake news has always been around, said Mindy Finn, M.P.S. ’10 and 2016 vice presidential candidate on a ticket with Utah’s Evan McMullin, but the speed and scale of information sharing has changed.

People see articles shared by friends and family on social media networks like Facebook, and because it is coming from a person they know, they trust the information. Mr. Trump also uses Twitter to share his own versions of the facts, Ms. Finn said.

Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List and M.A. ’97, said Mr. Trump’s loose relationship with facts is creating an ethics problem for future politicians. Many Americans grew up trusting the news as a source for information that had been fact checked and closely examined.

“To have the president…deem something as fake news is so incredibly dangerous,” she said.

Media distrust is on the rise, but Ms. Schriock said at least one positive thing came out of the election: a surge in women interested in running for office.

Sopan Deb, culture reporter for The New York Times, said he rejects the idea the media failed the public during the 2016 election. Some of the best journalism of his lifetime happened during the campaign, he said, and subscriptions to mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have continued to climb.

“You do not hate-subscribe to The New York Times,” he said. “You do it because you’re interested in what they have to say.”

The institution of journalism does not change because Mr. Trump became president, Mr. Deb said. The media does not need Mr. Trump’s affection and journalists will continue to do their jobs. He also said fake news alone is not why Mr. Trump was elected.

How the 2016 election will affect future races is yet to be seen, the panelists agreed. Mr. Trump’s victory could encourage more people without a political background to run for office. It could also set precedent for decreased press access and a different kind of campaigning— forgoing small events for large rallies, a successful tactic for Mr. Trump.

“I don’t think it’s a one-off, in that I do believe it opened people’s eyes to the types of candidates that can get elected,” Ms. Finn said. “I do think we will see more candidates in that mold.”

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