Disclaimer: What follows is not an endorsement or justification of the president and his actions but an explanation of what is happening versus what is being reported.
Despite only being at the mid-point in June, this has been an active month for fake news reports. Increasingly, our nation’s most prominent news outlets are presenting facts in a manner that seems to be intentionally misleading … hence the popular accusation, “fake news.” Although our natural tendency may be to dismiss this as being frivolous and unnecessarily controversial, it may surprise us to discover that there are significant spiritual implications to this trend. These are addressed in my latest book, titled Culture of Lies: Understanding Fake News and Its Spiritual Ramifications which extensively documents a pattern of fake news reports in prominent media sources. For now, however, let’s limit our attention to three examples of “fake news” this month.
- Political bias did not impact the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton
Following the release of an Inspector General’s (IG) report on the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton, the media reported that former FBI director James Comey’s actions flouted the department’s norms and were “extraordinary and insubordinate” but that the IG concluded that Comey’s actions were not politically motivated. Furthermore, they affirmed FBI director Christopher Wray’s statement, “This report did not find any evidence of political bias or improper considerations actually impacting the investigation under review.”
In reality, the Inspector General did not absolve the FBI of the charge that the investigation was impacted by political bias. Instead, after noting that “It’s not my job to draw firm conclusions about why things happened the way they did”, the IG noted that he found no documentary evidence that the abundant examples of political bias were the motivation behind the exceptional departures from FBI procedures that occurred during the investigation. Kimberly Strassel notes in The Wall Street Journal, “He [referring to IG Horwitz] very carefully says that he found no ‘documentary’ evidence that bias produced ‘specific investigatory decisions.’ That’s different,” she said. “It means he didn’t catch anyone doing anything so dumb as writing down that they took a specific step to aid a candidate. You know, like: ‘Let’s give out this Combetta immunity deal so nothing comes out that will derail Hillary for President.”
In his statement to Congress, Horowitz said that the office of the IG does not have confidence that the decision of deputy assistant director Peter Strzok to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on evidence in the Weiner laptop was free from bias in light of his text messages. Furthermore, he documented a culture of pervasive political bias among the agents involved in the investigation, and he documented many ways in which those agents chose to handle the investigation differently from other investigations. He also reported that the anti-Trump text messages exchanged between FBI agents “potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.” To report the findings as though the IG has cleared the FBI of any charge of being politically motivated is, at best, a gross misrepresentation of the report.
- President Trump’s new policy is responsible for separating families at the border
News outlets have consistently reported that the separation of children from their families at the border is the result of a new policy introduced by President Trump’s administration. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow summarized this narrative when she explained, “Here’s what we think is happening: Kids and babies have never before been ripped away from their moms and dads at the border. This is a new policy put in place by the Trump administration.”
However, according to Department of Homeland Security director Kirstjen Nielsen, there is no policy resulting in the separation of families at the border. Instead, this “new policy” is the president’s directive that the laws of our country be consistently enforced … something that not every president chose to do. Business Insider reports, “Unauthorized border crossings have always been illegal, but previous administrations did not criminally prosecute all border crossers the way Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has.” In something referred to as “zero tolerance,” the Department of Justice has now been directed to treat all people as equal under the law, prosecuting all criminal offenders rather than selectively choosing who will be prosecuted.
Those who are simply being tried for the crime of illegally crossing the border are often apprehended, tried, and convicted within the same day. Adults who want to return to their home country are quickly re-united with their children and returned home as a family unit. Only those who seek asylum after illegally crossing the border experience a prolonged separation. However, Nielsen notes, “[I]f you are seeking asylum for your family, there is no reason to break the law and illegally cross between ports of entry.”
The specifics regarding the laws in question are somewhat technical, but Kirstjen Nielsen summarized them when she told the press, “For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous Administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between ‘family’ members, or if the adult has broken a law.” She also said, “Until these loopholes are closed by Congress, it is not possible, as a matter of law, to detain and remove whole family units who arrive illegally in the United States. Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it. Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States.”
The question at hand is whether the law should be consistently enforced, or whether this president should prioritize some prosecutions while allowing others to break the law without consequence. Kirstjen Nielsen explained to reporters, “It’s a law passed by the United States Congress. Rather than fixing the law, Congress is asking those of us who enforce the law to turn our backs on the law and not enforce the law.” To report this as if the President is intentionally seeking to punish good people by separating their families is both a misrepresentation of the facts and the key issue in question.
- “Missing Melania” Conspiracy Theories
Despite some journalists having seen her days earlier, and despite the knowledge that she was recovering from Kidney surgery, some in the media assumed a conspiracy. The senior editor at The Atlantic tweeted a theory that the President may have “punched the First Lady in the White House … then ordered the Secret Service to conceal the assault”, and a senior writer at Rolling Stone tweeted his suspicion that Melania’s absence “could be about concealing abuse” because President Trump is “a man with a history of abusing women, including those to whom he is married.” Likewise, Huffington Post political and pop culture analyst Andy Ostroy tweeted, “Where is @FLOTUS? And why was she in the hospital so long? Is she sick? Did she have a breakdown? Did @POTUS force her to get plastic surgery? Was the whole thing a scam? This is not a joke. These are legit Q’s abt America’s First Lady that remain unanswered. #Melania #Trump”
The New York Times, and also Huffington Post senior politics reporter Laura Bassett, implied that Melania’s surgery was suspect. Laura told CNN that the White House is not being honest about the whereabouts of the First Lady, and Baltimore Sun reporter David Zurawik suggested to CNN that Melania’s reassuring tweets were not sent by Melania but by someone controlling her account.
The hosts of The View discussed the subject, and CNN devoted several segments to the question of Melania’s whereabouts. In one of these, Brian Stelter invited speculation from a CNN panel by asking, “There’s been a lot of questions about her surgery, her time at Walter Reed, and now her invisibility. … How long does she have to be out of sight to make this a legitimate media story?” Three days earlier, in his e-mail newsletter, Stelter also displayed an M.I.A. countdown calendar and reported on the “mystery” of the First Lady being out of sight for 24 days … despite CNBC’s Eamon Javers tweet four days earlier, “Not that this will deter the conspiracy theorists, but I saw the First Lady walking with her aides in the West Wing yesterday afternoon.”
Not surprisingly, there was no grand conspiracy, and the First Lady made a public appearance at a gold star families reception. Yet even then, The New York Times cast doubt with the headline “Melania Trump Returns to the Public Eye (Sort Of),” and The Root suggested that it was really Melania’s body double at the event.
The story about Melania is illustrative of how reporters can participate in propagating misrepresented facts while denying the charge that they are disseminating fake news. After Melania’s public appearance, President Trump tweeted, “The Fake News Media has been so unfair, and vicious, to my wife and our great First Lady, Melania. During her recovery from surgery they reported everything from near death, to facelift, to left the W.H. (and me) for N.Y. or Virginia, to abuse. All Fake, she is doing really well!” Brian Stelter responded by tweeting, “Trump is conflating random Twitter commenters with ‘the media’ here. A common tactic of bad faith critics. But disappointing to see POTUS do it.”
Many of these “random Twitter commenters,” including Brian Stelter, bear Twitter’s blue checkmark status of “verified” because of their status as professional journalists. When users read tweets from professional journalists who have also been verified by Twitter, they assume the information to be accurate. Moreover, journalists use Twitter chatter to justify reporting on stories as legitimate news, such as in this instance. For journalists to distinguish their reporting of news from “the media” because their Twitter posts are not official publications from their places of employment is disingenuous, particularly when the chatter from those very tweets help to form the basis for “official” news coverage of the issue.
Nobody expects the news media to be 100% accurate all the time. However, there is a consistent pattern of misrepresentation and selective reporting of the facts among many of today’s news outlets. This should concern us … not just because we rely upon these outlets for reliable information, but because this pattern could have significant spiritual consequences for our nation. To discover what these consequences may be, read Culture of Lies: Understanding Fake News and Its Spiritual Ramifications.
*Update: The title of my book has been updated from The Fake News Epidemic and Its Perilous Trajectory to the revised title Culture of Lies: Understanding Fake News and Its Spiritual Ramifications.
1. Jarrett, Laura, Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju. “Comey’s Actions ‘Extraordinary and Insubordinate,’ Report Says.” CNN, n.d. Last Updated June 14, 2018. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/14/politics/ig-report-clinton-email-investigation/.
2. Right Side Broadcasting Network. “LIVE: FBI Director Holds Press Conference After IG Report Released.” YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=FVl4VVfQVVo (accessed June 19, 2018).
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7. Nielsen, Kirstjen. Twitter Post, June 17, 2018, 2:52 PM. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://twitter.com/SecNielsen/status/1008467414235992069.
8. ABC News. “White House Press Briefing with Homeland Security Sec’y Kirstjen Nielsen on Border Family Separation.” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ae23MjN9GOU (accessed June 19, 2018).
9. Lockie, Alex. “Conclusive Proof That It Is Trump’s Policy to Separate Children from Their Families at the Border.” Business Insider, June 18, 2018. Accessed June 19, 2018. http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-administration-policy-separating-children-border-cbp-dhs-2018-6.
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14. Nielsen, Kirstjen. Twitter Post, June 17, 2018, 2:51 PM. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://twitter.com/SecNielsen/status/1008467103857463298.
15. Lockie, Alex. “Conclusive Proof That It Is Trump’s Policy to Separate Children from Their Families at the Border.” Business Insider, June 18, 2018. Accessed June 19, 2018. http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-administration-policy-separating-children-border-cbp-dhs-2018-6.
16. ABC News. “White House Press Briefing with Homeland Security Sec’y Kirstjen Nielsen on Border Family Separation.”
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25. Lahren, Tomi. “Sean Hannity 6/5/18 | Hannity Fox News | June 5, 2018.” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sya82vDXSQ (accessed June 6, 2018).
26. Stelter, Brian. “Melania M.I.A.” CNN, June 3, 2018. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://mailchi.mp/cnn/rs-june-3-2018.
27. Javers, Eamon. Twitter Post, May 30, 2018, 4:36 AM. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://twitter.com/EamonJavers/status/1001789353197260800.
28. Rogers, Katie. “Melania Trump Returns to the Public Eye (Sort Of).” The New York Times, June 4, 2018. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/04/us/politics/melania-trump-reappears.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article®ion=Footer.
29. Crocket, Stephen Jr. “Wait, Was That a Melania Trump Look-Alike?” The Root, June 5, 2018. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://www.theroot.com/wait-was-that-a-melania-trump-lookalike-1826570407.
30. Trump, Donald J. Twitter Post, June 6, 2018, 6:48 AM. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1004359335399641089.
31. Stelter, Brian. Twitter Post, June 6, 2018, 7:15 AM. Accessed June 19, 2018. https://twitter.com/brianstelter/status/1004366118935379968.
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