‘Fake News’ as News is Fake News

“I cannot tell a lie,” said a young George Washington, purportedly admitting to chopping down the cherry tree. This story is often used to exemplify the honesty of America’s first president, and is the standard by which all future politicians are to be measured. Except that by all accounts it is untrue. It is either a lie coming from 18th century Washington supporter, or more likely, a parable written to set expectations for how politicians approach difficult subjects. But it is a poignant beginning for our travels through the looking-glass to examine the state of truth in public discourse.

 

The manner by which Donald J. Trump won the U.S. election, elevating him to the most powerful position on the planet, and his subsequent behaviour have shaken the foundation of America’s government, damaged the country’s international relationships and disintermediated traditional media. It has also fostered an interesting public debate about validating the truth, as well as industry discussion about how the role of a PR advisor has changed.

 

But is this new? Every president in recent history has been caught in a lie, albeit of varying severities. Richard Nixon’s lies are legendary, and Donald Trump’s approach brings us full circle. The list below provides examples of untrue statements uttered by every president since Nixon.

 

Richard Nixon (37): “I am not a crook,” November 17, 1973

Gerald Ford (38): “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” October 6, 1976

Jimmy Carter (39): “Iran is an island of stability in a turbulent corner of the world,” January 1, 1978

(note: this was the hardest example to find, and may actually be just his naiveté. It’s interesting though, since it comes after his election promise “I’ll never tell a lie. I’ll never make a misleading statement.”)

Ronald Reagan (40): “In spite of the wildly speculative and false stories of arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not—repeat, did not—trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we,” November 13,1986

George H.W. Bush (41): “Read my lips, no new taxes,” August 18, 1988

Bill Clinton (42): “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” January 26, 1998

George W. Bush (43): “Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction,” January 28, 2003

Barack Obama (44): “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what,” June 15, 2009

Donald Trump (45): “Hillary Clinton invented ISIS with her stupid policies. She is responsible for ISIS,” July 20, 2016

 

So why the uproar now? What has changed? What makes Trump different is the honesty with which he lies. The presidents listed above either hoped the statements were true or would become true (presidents 38, 39, 41, 43 and 44), or believed the lies would not be found out (presidents 37, 40 and 42). Donald Trump does not care about the outcomes of his statements. For example, at a post-election rally in Michigan, his supporters began their familiar “lock her up” chant in reference to his rival, Hillary Clinton. Trump told the crowd “Forget it. That plays great before the election. Now, we don’t care, right?” Like a schoolyard bully, he enjoys the reactions his lies get, so they are more frequent, more audacious and often self-contradictory.

 

“Fake news”, the form of lying Trump attributes to the media, was borne out of the antagonistic relationship the Trump administration has with mainstream media. Throughout his campaign and at the outset of his presidency, Donald Trump began openly picking fights with journalists, and once in office, his administration followed suit. In fact, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer opened his first briefing by giving a different account of the size of the crowds at the inauguration ceremony.

 

In response to questions on this very issue on Meet the Press, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway excused Sean Spicer’s numbers and explanations as giving “alternative facts.” This phrase became the symbol around which media and critics rallied, protesting the administrations reliance on prevarication. “Alternative facts” became code for “lies,” but this is an oversimplification. What Conway was saying out loud is what we all know – that people use facts that support their views, and that in this case there were other facts that Spicer was attempting to use to justify his view that the inauguration ceremony was a success. In our own language, he had a different “key message” with a different set of proof points. It was still an attempt to mislead the audience in order to prop up a preposterous argument, but not necessarily through out-and-out lies.

 

So, what can we learn from Trump, his approach to the truth and the media firestorm he has set off? I would suggest the following four PR rules to live by:

 

1.       Never lie: you will get caught, and lies back you into a corner.  Explain your position or your actions, but do not lie to do so. By all means use “alternative facts,” but only to support an argument that has a reasonable shot at resonating with your stakeholders. 

2.       Be interesting: the more interesting you are and your story is, the more coverage you will get and more people will talk about you. The entertainment value of a Trump presidency likely had a significant influence on the outcome of last year’s election. While we may dislike Trump and his policies, he makes for a great read.

3.       Respect the media: the valuable role media play in finding, validating and sharing important information with the public cannot be overstated. The work reporters do not only allow us to make day-to-day decisions affecting our businesses and our personal lives, but a free press is what holds governments accountable (including Trump’s – just wait).

4.       Embrace social media: Trump’s use of Twitter is legendary, and has allowed him to connect directly with his followers and disintermediate the media. When media are not interested in your story (even after hiring a PR firm, this sometimes happens), or you want followers to hear from you directly, social media channels have the ability to help you communicate with your most important audiences.