While stumping for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, in Lexington’s Rupp Arena on Monday night, President Donald Trump went to one of his greatest hits when strutting before an adoring crowd.
The president spread his arms to indicate all of the press who were covering the event, deriding them as the “fake news media.” He rambled on about the “Amazon-owned Washington Post” and the “failing New York Times” as a chorus of boos and jeers were directed at those covering the event.
Of course, “fake news” exists, although it’s more likely to be found on Facebook or YouTube from questionable sources. Then there’s spin, the space occupied by talk radio, some digital media and cable news, which is more difficult terrain to navigate. But finding actual malicious or negligent false reporting in the publications Trump attacks won’t turn up much, if anything. The term “fake news” has long since evolved to mean any coverage the president or his cadre of loyalists don’t like. It’s a lazy way of writing off criticism without actually having to muster a defense or even a coherent response.
The problem with such claims is that this president has created, and even encouraged, an “us vs. them” culture fueled by unfocused anger. There’s a real danger there, and Trump either doesn’t grasp it or doesn’t feel he needs to take any responsibility for the ripple effect of his words.
Take the notorious example of the man who mailed dud pipe bombs to several media outlets and political officials Trump had deemed “enemies,” for instance.
Or look at what happened last month, as The Washington Post recently reported, when a county commission in Florida declined a library’s request for funds to purchase a digital subscription to The New York Times.
One Citrus County commissioner claimed the paper prints information that isn’t “verified.” Commissioner Scott Carnahan declared the publication “fake news,” then went on to say, “I agree with President Trump. I will not be voting for this. I don’t want The New York Times in this county.”
Think about the diabolical nature of that seemingly innocuous phrase. Consider, historically, some of the words that have filled the blank when someone said, “I don’t want ___ here.”
After the five commissioners rejected the request for funding, in a dizzying display of irony, they declared October “Friends of the Library Month.” According to The Post, the four commissioners who agreed to speak to a local newspaper about the decision admitted they don’t read The Times. So they don’t really know what’s in it, they just know it’s bad.
Whether or not a county wants to supply funds for certain things is that governing body’s choice. But the overt hostility from the commission in this case comes off a lot more like censorship. The commission reasons it can’t have people reading news it doesn’t want them to read.
That’s frightening territory. What’s to stop a county commission somewhere in West Virginia from making a similar decision? What if a county commission actively goes to a library it funds, looking for and removing publications government officials don’t like?
An informed public is a more engaged public, whether that relates to community involvement or the landscape of state and national politics. Most who seek to be better informed have the fortitude to determine their own views about an issue after reading a report on it. Blocking information resources out of blind political disagreement leads to a dark place best avoided.