Trump’s hall of mir­rors

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY JOHN PODESTA The writer, the chair of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, served as coun­selor to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and chief of staff to Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s fake-news pivot isn’t sub­tle. First he ben­e­fited from fake news sto­ries dur­ing the cam­paign; then as pres­i­dent-elect and now pres­i­dent, he has con­stantly used the ep­i­thet against main­stream me­dia out­lets that dare crit­i­cize him.

Any neg­a­tive polls, he has pro­claimed, are “fake news.” So are news sto­ries that put him in a bad light — even if they are cor­rob­o­rated by Trump’s own of­fi­cials, as with re­ports that Supreme Court nom­i­nee Neil Gor­such termed com­ments about the ju­di­ciary “de­mor­al­iz­ing” and “dis­heart­en­ing.”

What’s hap­pen­ing here is more than the sim­ple con­tin­u­a­tion of Trump’s well-doc­u­mented ten­dency as a can­di­date to lie fla­grantly and refuse to back down. It is more than his nar­cis­sis­tic in­ca­pac­ity to re­ceive bad news.

It is more dan­ger­ous. Trump is de­ploy­ing a strat­egy, used by au­to­crats, de­signed to com­pletely dis­ori­ent pub­lic per­cep­tion. He’s not just try­ing to spin the bad news of the day; all politi­cians do that. He seeks noth­ing less than to un­der­mine the pub­lic’s be­lief that any news can be trusted, that any news is true, that there is any fixed re­al­ity.

Trump is at­tempt­ing to build a hall of mir­rors where even our most ba­sic sen­sory per­cep­tions are shrouded in con­fu­sion. He is em­u­lat­ing the suc­cess­ful strat­egy of Vladimir Putin.

In “Noth­ing Is True and Ev­ery­thing Is Pos­si­ble,” Peter Pomer­ant­sev, a Bri­tish cit­i­zen of Rus­sian ori­gin, chron­i­cles his first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence in Rus­sia’s tele­vi­sion in­dus­try. Pomer­ant­sev sheds light on Rus­sia’s whirling me­dia land­scape and pro­pa­ganda ma­chine to show how Putin’s po­lit­i­cal pup­pet masters prey on the modern ap­petite for drama and en­ter­tain­ment to blur the line be­tween fact and fic­tion.

He writes: “The Krem­lin has fi­nally mas­tered the art of fus­ing re­al­ity TV and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism to keep the great, 140-mil­lion-strong pop­u­la­tion en­ter­tained, dis­tracted, con­stantly ex­posed to geopo­lit­i­cal night­mares, which if re­peated enough times can be­come in­fec­tious.”

Fol­low­ing his in­au­gu­ra­tion, Trump has worked to cre­ate an Amer­i­can me­dia land­scape with an eerily sim­i­lar pattern of ob­fus­ca­tion and drama. We now see a toxic over­lap be­tween sen­sa­tion­al­ist politics and me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion. Each pres­i­den­tial stroke of bom­bast plunges the me­dia, the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the pub­lic into a fren­zied scram­ble for the truth, with the phrase “fake news” non­cha­lantly thrown around, adding a heap­ing spoon­ful of cyn­i­cism to the whole mess. These episodes dis­tort our un­der­stand­ing of re­al­ity and put us in dan­ger of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an in­for­ma­tion void like Rus­sia’s.

If Trump suc­ceeds, some­thing fun­da­men­tal will be lost. Rus­sians hear some­thing on TV and as­sume it’s a lie. That at­ti­tude of re­flex­ive cyn­i­cism makes it im­pos­si­ble to know the death toll from an in­dus­trial ac­ci­dent or a ter­ror­ist in­ci­dent, or the risk to their kids of drink­ing the wa­ter, or even the re­sults of the last elec­tion. It ru­ins ev­ery­thing.

Our Amer­i­can democ­racy has been built on a foun­da­tion of a press free of gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence and governed by strong pro­fes­sional ethics. Of course, the me­dia oc­ca­sion­ally get stuff wrong, and when­ever they do they need to put it right, but they are the foun­da­tion of an in­formed demo­cratic dia­logue. Our pres­i­dent is throw­ing mud all over that — de­lib­er­ately, with mal­ice afore­thought. He’s telling us we are be­ing lied to all the time. That has a cor­ro­sive ef­fect, deep­en­ing pub­lic dis­trust of the me­dia and other in­sti­tu­tions at a time when they al­ready en­joy his­tor­i­cally low lev­els of con­fi­dence. We can­not let that hap­pen.

In this con­text, Amer­i­cans should main­tain a height­ened vig­i­lance and think more care­fully about the ve­rac­ity of the in­for­ma­tion they con­sume. They need to be aware that some of the in­for­ma­tion pump­ing through so­cial me­dia is in­deed fake and some­times ma­li­cious. So­cial-me­dia plat­forms should find ways to guard against hyp­ing dis­cernible lies at the ex­pense of cred­i­ble sources. But Amer­i­cans must also be wary of any ef­fort, par­tic­u­larly from the White House, to dis­ori­ent or dis­credit re­li­able in­for­ma­tion.

And a heavy bur­den falls on Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists to fact-check a pres­i­dent and a White House staff that is set­ting records for ped­dling false in­for­ma­tion and not to be afraid to call a lie a lie. The re­cent ouster of Michael Flynn as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser demon­strates that ly­ing still car­ries con­se­quences. But jour­nal­ists must go fur­ther and pro­vide con­text and anal­y­sis for what mo­ti­vates Trump, Stephen K. Ban­non, Kellyanne Con­way and the oth­ers to con­stantly dis­tort re­al­ity. In so do­ing they have the op­por­tu­nity to reestab­lish their own cred­i­bil­ity and Amer­i­can demo­cratic norms.


Pres­i­dent Trump speaks dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in the White House in Wash­ing­ton on Thurs­day.

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