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Fake News and Fake Innocence

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

At a rally in Phoenix a few weeks ago, President Donald Trump went rogue. He stopped reading prepared remarks off the teleprompter and for 30 minutes went on a tirade, taking aim at his favorite target: journalists.

The crowd, of course, loved it.

But as I watched on television, I kept thinking that Trump was reminding me of someone. Then it hit me.

Donald Trump was sounding like Joe Pesci. Not the goofy Joe Pesci in "Home Alone," but the Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas."

No, I'm not comparing Donald Trump to the gangster Pesci played in the movie. It's just that there are times when Trump sounds more like a wise guy from Queens than a dignified man occupying the Oval Office.

I was a journalist at CBS News for 28 years, and during that time I witnessed liberal bias; I witnessed liberal elitism, and I witnessed a few mistakes. But I never saw anything resembling the "fake news" the president is constantly wailing about. I never saw any journalist just make something up out of nothing.

During his rant in Phoenix, Trump said journalists attribute stories to unnamed sources that don't exist. Sure, there have been a few bad apples over the years that made up quotes from nonexistent sources. But that's extremely rare.

To Donald Trump, fake news is simply news about him that he doesn't like.

As for mistakes, there have been a few big ones since Trump became president. But they've been the result of flimsy reporting, not a conspiracy to concoct make-believe facts to hurt the president.

In early June, the president's favorite pinata, CNN, reported on its website that James Comey, the former FBI director, would contradict President Trump in testimony before Congress. CNN said Comey would contest the president's assertion that Comey had informed him three times that he was not under investigation.

CNN's Jake Tapper and Gloria Borger repeated the assertion on the air.

CNN got the story wrong and issued a correction.

Then in late June, CNN reported that Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci had ties to a Russian investment fund that had attracted the attention of investigators in the United States Senate.

CNN wound up retracting the story. And three of the network's top investigative reporters had to resign. As the New York Times reported: "The retracted story and ignominious exits of three prominent journalists was an embarrassing episode for CNN, particularly at a time when there was widespread mistrust in the media and Mr. Trump was regularly attacking the press."

Breitbart called the story "very fake news" -- and President Trump tweeted, "Wow, CNN had to retract big story on 'Russia,' with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!"

Not really. No one who knows how it works believes that the CNN journalists simply made up the story. But it's undeniable that too many journalists don't approve of anything about this president -- and that can lead to mistakes.

For journalists, introspection is not a strong suit; circling the wagons is. So they don't spend a lot of time examining their biases and how those biases affect the way they cover the news.

And so, if the president has an obligation to be fair in his criticism of the media -- and not cavalierly throw the words "fake news" around the way he does -- then journalists also have an obligation (as obvious as it may be) to be fair to the president even if they don't like him.

While it's true that Trump deserves a lot of the criticism heaped on him, the press needs to acknowledge that for too many reporters, their animosity for this president influences their journalism.

Here's how Jonathan Tobin put it in National Review: "Since Trump took office, the willingness of journalists to mix opinion with news reporting has grown. Opposition to Trump and his policies is now seen as justifying any breech of the church-state divide between news and opinion. Any efforts to rein in this bias is denounced as buckling under to Trump's intimidation even if those doing so are merely asking the press to play it straight rather than to signal their disgust and opposition to the president."

In a free country like ours, people need to have confidence in the press; they need to know that reporters are honest brokers of information. They need to know that journalists are holding powerful people accountable -- and not settling scores.

So, it would help if Trump stopped delegitimizing the mainstream media; it would help if he would stop channeling Joe Pesci when he's ranting about "fake news" and the press.

And it would also help if reporters acknowledged what a lot of news consumers have already figured out: Too many journalists have abandoned the role of objective observers and taken on the role of anti-Trump activists.

Shouting about fake news is no way to deal with a press Donald Trump doesn't like. And proclaiming fake innocence is no way to deal with a president reporters don't like.


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