To say I have been disturbed by President Donald Trump’s first few weeks in office is an understatement. But one Trump-led phenomenon that worries and angers me most is his choice to label the media as “ fake news” and the “ opposition.”
The vast majority, if not all, political systems or communication scholars understand a free and independent press as a cornerstone of democracy. While a healthy democracy holds its press to ethical and professional journalistic standards, a president who labels the nation’s press as the “opposition” because media’s factual reporting does not sit well with him or his supporters is dangerously undemocratic.
Such a slippery slope has begun to take root in Maine, with the recent launch of the Fake News Alert by the Maine Republican Party.
Its first alert was called on The Advertiser Democrat in Oxford County. What fake news did this small weekly report? It did not have front-page coverage of Trump’s inauguration, an act which Maine GOP Executive Director Jason Savage said makes it look “ as if an inauguration did not happen.”
Misleading rhetoric aside, the real issue here is that what the newspaper published is not fake news. Fake news would be “Donald Trump Abducted by Aliens During Inauguration.” Calling a newspaper “fake” simply because it did not print what Savage and many GOP supporters would have liked to see is irresponsible and an affront to the press freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
The Maine GOP did not stop there. It also created a News You Can Trust section of its website. In the first video, Savage and Communications Director Nina McLaughlin discuss a host of issues such as Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, bills in Congress and Hallowell’s sanctuary city controversy, all of which were slanted with a Republican bias.
If the Maine GOP filed such videos under a typical “updates” or “blog” section of its website, there would be nothing wrong here. But for the party to label its biased commentary as “news you can trust” advances the slippery undemocratic slope that Trump has begun.
Party-sponsored commentary should not be labeled as news, especially when it is coming from the mouth of its executive director. That is precisely the kind of bias that the right accuses the mainstream media to be guilty of.
But more importantly, the Maine GOP’s News You Can Trust is purposefully juxtaposed against any media source that is not GOP endorsed. They are purposefully mobilizing their supporters to reject any news that does not fit within the confines of the Republican platform and ideals.
We are living in a world where media fragmentation has fueled partisan selective exposure. Someone on the right needs only subscribe to Breitbart to legitimize his or her ideals, and the same goes for those on the left with the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos. It is unfortunate that the majority of Americans do not engage with information that may challenge their political beliefs, but that is the reality market forces have bred.
But that does not give elected officials and party representatives, be they in Washington or Augusta, the mandate to indoctrinate people into believing news is fake just because its narrative is counter to one’s partisan ideals. Furthermore, using such a mandate to brand a media system as an opposing force that should be fought is an affront to democracy. Democracy thrives with a media system that acts as a check on government. To assemble citizens against this democratic norm is to assemble them for a country where the government gets the ultimate say on a newspaper’s headline.
Political parties exist in part to mobilize the electorate but not at the expense of the democracy. While division is ripe in American politics, our leaders can at least agree that going down a “1984”-like course is unthinkable. The Maine GOP should put a stop to its erroneous and deceitful labels of what constitutes fake and trustworthy news.
Matt McLaughlin is a native of Brewer. He is pursuing a master’s degree in political communication at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and he works as a researcher for the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.