Sean Hannity, the Donald Trump adviser who masquerades as a political journalist on Fox News when it suits him, got up on his hind legs recently to scold CNN's Jake Tapper, who is a real journalist and former White House correspondent, a fellow who actually has to follow the norms and rules of the craft, such as they are.
Basically, that means Tapper would be fired for knowingly telling a lie on air, whereas Hannity presumably counsels President Trump on making them up.
Hannity's issue with Tapper that night was foolishness – something about how horrible it was of Tapper to say, on air, just after a man shouting Allahu Akbar had mowed down several Manhattan pedestrians with a rented truck, that Allahu Akbar is a phrase sometimes uttered as a beautiful sentiment, and has been corrupted by bad people.
What caught my interest was the way Hannity set up the CNN-loves-terrorists smear: "You have liberal fake news CNN's fake-Jake Tapper," he explained in his pained, self-righteous tone.
Unleashing the angry id
It was crude and puerile. But then, like the president he advises, Hannity is unconcerned with grownup language (or even proper spelling). He instead packs his sentences with emotives and epithets designed to stimulate the angry id. He and Trump are linguistic gunsmiths, and the phrase "fake news" is their most potent weapon.
In the bumper-sticker realm of Trump Nation, it's the etymological equivalent of a Bushmaster with a bump stock; turn it on your enemy and spray. It's particularly handy for dealing with inconvenient facts. Just nock a fake-news arrow onto your bowstring, aim it at your tormentor and let the exploding head tear into truth and reality.
When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. There always playing politics - bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!— @realDonaldTrump
Climate change is fake news. Collusion with Russia is definitely fake news, and gets faker with every guilty plea and criminal indictment of Trump campaign aides, and every new account of them meeting with people they thought represented Russia and had dirt on Hillary. The poor attendance at Trump's inauguration, documented by aerial photographs set beside those of Barack Obama's big day, was fake news. Multiple accusations of sexual harassment against Trump himself are fake news. Fake, fake, fake.
In a masterpiece of theatrical irony, Trump himself actually claims to have invented the phrase. Remember, this is the guy who for years pushed the idea that Obama was born abroad, and that his parents covered it up. Or that Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's father was in league with Lee Harvey Oswald. Not for nothing has Trump declared his love of uneducated people.
Anyway, I don't know who did invent the phrase, but it certainly wasn't Trump; my comedian brother, when he hosted Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update back in the '90s, opened every segment with the catchphrase: "I'm Norm Macdonald, and this is the fake news." He's pretty proud of that.
(If anyone ever brought that fact to Trump's attention, he would probably just dismiss it as fake news. That's the beauty of the phrase. Reality, facts, truth….all meaningless, once the arrow flies.)
In the past, public figures faced with unfortunate revelations have had limited strategies. They could parse doggedly, as Bill Clinton did, challenging his detractors to define "sex," or Sen. Larry Craig, busted for soliciting an undercover cop in an airport bathroom by tapping his foot from the next stall.
Craig, standing beside his mortified wife, explained he habitually adopted a "wide stance" while doing his business. Clinton managed to weasel out of his predicament; Craig was laughed out of politics.
Pre-fake news spin
There's also the tearful plea for redemption defence, usually adopted by conservative clergy inspired by Satan to fornicate and subsequently caught. Televangelist Ted Haggard tried that one after one of his Rentboy hires went public about Haggard's enthusiasm for sex while smoking meth.
Fellow televangelist Jimmy Swaggart wept, face contorted in spiritual agony, wailing that he had sinned. Tammy Faye Bakker's profuse public tears ruined her mascara load after her husband, Pastor Jim, was exposed as a fraud and accused of rape.
And there's the I'm-seeking-therapy dodge, employed without much result by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and former congressman Anthony Weiner, who couldn't stop photographing his nasty bits and sending them to fans.
But most of those cases preceded the arrival of fake news, which is simultaneously a defence and an attack. With fake news, there is no need to justify, rationalize, parse or explain.
Look at Roy Moore, the gay-hating, evangelical Christian former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who is now the Republican candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
After the Washington Post published a strongly corroborated story about this Godly jurist sexually molesting a 14-year-old when he was a district attorney in his 30s, along with on-the-record accounts from three other women of improper advances from Moore when they were teens, Moore had a singular, simple reply: fake news made up by the liberal fake news media.
His supporters then piled on, smearing the characters of the women. Alabama's state auditor pointed out that, anyway, Joseph was a lot older than Mary, and they became the parents of Jesus. (The Bible, you understand, contains no fake news; every word is the literal truth).
Moore remains the Republican candidate.
- Mitch McConnell calls on Roy Moore to quit Senate race as new accuser comes forward
- In the Trump era of fake news, more U.S. schools focusing on media literacy
None of this, of course, would work without a receptive audience. Polls suggest most Americans do not trust the mainstream media. That's as much our fault as carny barkers like Sean Hannity.
The media is guilty of atrocious hypocrisy: we assign value to life based on race (disasters in the Third World usually merit coverage after the death toll rises above several thousand), reporters posing as experts repeat conventional wisdom, we insist on the delusion of objectivity, we often make it more about ourselves than the actual news, we are hopelessly bourgeois and we genuflect obsequiously to authority, all the time posing as stern watchdogs.
That has always been the case, though. There are poor reporters and brilliant ones. I've always had faith that educated readers and viewers (I love educated people) will identify and trust the best of us. Hence the New York Times and the Economist and the New Yorker and the Washington Post, among others.
But I never anticipated there would come a time when there'd be no set of basic, agreed-upon facts to start from. That's new. That's the triumph of fake news.