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TABATHA SOUTHEY

The term ‘fake news’ is quickly losing meaning in the Trump era Add to ...

“You are fake news” Donald Trump said to Jim Acosta of CNN when Mr. Acosta attempted to ask the president-elect a question in that strange gathering that Americans are being asked to accept as a press conference.

Private prison stocks soared when Donald Trump was elected, but if I could invest in one thing heading into his administration, it would be scare quotes. America is going to need a lot of them.

The scare quotes necessitated every time anyone mentioned the Trump-team plan for a “blind trust” that they promised would separate him from any conflicts of interest have already come close to depleting the world’s supply. New scare-quote mines are already being opened at this very moment to cope with Mr. Trump’s rather telling use of them around “Russian hacking” and “intelligence” on Twitter, and after Wednesday’s bizarre sideshow, we can conservatively estimate that the phrase “press conference” alone will require a tripling of our scare-quote production if global demand is to be met.

What was Wednesday’s event, exactly? It’s difficult to say. It was part family wedding, in that so many of Mr. Trump’s kin were there that the only thing missing was the boutonnieres, and of course, Tiffany. I half-expected vice-president-elect Mike Pence to grab Mr. Trump by the arm and start marching him up the aisle. Mr. Pence was that proud and Mr. Trump appeared that naive about the demands of the pledge he is soon to take, and the general feeling in the room was “This won’t end well.”

The event was part campaign rally and part victory rally, as is almost everything Mr. Trump does these days. I imagine he can’t dress himself in the morning without promising his pants he’s going to put on a belt and make his shoes pay for it, and congratulating himself for doing the one leg at a time thing that many pants, the best pants, are saying is tremendous. Pausing before putting on his shoes, he demands to know if any of his socks think Hillary would be tougher on his buttons than he is. “Get out of here, socks!”

On Wednesday, he would not stop talking about Hillary Clinton. It’s as if somehow, in his dreams, she is still running and is his biggest problem. He also boasted about his businesses. “And actually,” he said, and I’d say “off-topic” but there wasn’t one, “people have learned a lot about my company and now they realize, my company is much bigger, much more powerful than they ever thought.”

As with any Trump appearance, Wednesday’s whatever-the-hell-that-was was mostly “guy applying for a loan he really shouldn’t get” crossed with an acceptance speech, with just a dash of “I hate you, you’re not my real dad!”

That is the four-to-eight-year oratory, consisting, I’d warrant, of no more than six complete sentences, that America has signed up for.

But back to Mr. Acosta and that accusation of “fake news.”

I bet you’ve seen that label used a lot lately. Fake news was a term coined to describe those complete fabrications, constructed and presented to look like news, that have been littering the Internet.

“FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary E-mail Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide” was but one example. That was a headline in the “Denver Guardian” and, in typing out “Denver Guardian” (damn, I did it again), I was forced to dig into my own dwindling supply of scare quotes. I had to use them – even though other writers are calling to ask if I can spot them a few until punctuation day – because the “Denver Guardian” (Ahhh! Sorry, fellow scribes; try turning your keyboards upside down and giving them a good shake; maybe there’s a few stuck between your keys) doesn’t exist. It never did, nor does the location at which the crime supposedly happened.

There is no “Walkerville, Maryland” – I had to cut and paste those scare quotes from an old explainer on planking; reduce, reuse, re-scare-quote – but I need them because this story is what actual fake news looks like. The phrase “fake news” has lost, or more accurately been robbed of, all meaning in the past few months, so please allow me to try to sort this out by telling you what fake news is not.

Fake news is not news published without thorough research and fact-checking. That’s what we call “bad journalism.”

Fake news is not news that some readers would prefer not to have read about. That is that thing that has traditionally been called “bad news.” That is news you don’t like.

Fake news is not news that, while thoroughly researched and seemingly verified to the best of the publication’s ability, turns out to be false – because honest mistakes do get made, an unfortunate fact of life in any profession.

Fake news is not even distantly related to opinion pieces or editorials that bug you.

A story going to print, and then later evolving – “Panicked people thought they heard another shooter” becomes “No, there is just one suspect” – does not retroactively become “fake news.” In that case, it just becomes “outdated reporting.”

Conspiracy theories are also not fake news, unless your local moon-landing-was-a-hoaxer has taken to publishing his claims at theglobeandmail.com.co. This, by the way, is a classic fake-news move. It’s the old mimicking-the-url,-logo-and-even-layout-of-actual-news-outlets-and-putting-some-generally-hate-filled-fancy-up-on-that-site gambit so popular of late.

Unfortunately, in a startlingly short period of time, all these things, along with a fair amount of just standard totally true news, are increasingly being described as “fake news.”

Which brings us back to Wednesday and Mr. Trump’s accusing CNN of running fake news. Accusing CNN of doing this is a popular pastime with his supporters as well, so, while I would love to say that the term “fake news” is dead, and ask you to please consider this column its obituary, it’s not.

The term fake news lurches on. It’s alive! It proved to be so useful that it has been co-opted, not just as a means of circling the wagons around all the actual lies that the spreaders of fake news profit from, benefit from and enjoy, but also as a means of silencing legitimate journalism and criticism.

Last week, CNN wrote something true that Mr. Trump didn’t like; namely, they reported that a two-page memo – including “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump” – had been included in an intelligence briefing presented to Mr. Trump and President Barack Obama.

CNN’s sources included “multiple U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the briefings.” This would very much appear to be news, and CNN did not even go into detail on the specifics of the claims mentioned in the memo, let alone announce they were true.

CNN did its job, but this caused Donald Trump, the same man who built his political career claiming that President Obama, having been born in Kenya, was not a U.S. citizen, and was therefore not actually the president, to tweet, “I win an election easily, a great ‘movement’ is verified, and crooked opponents try to belittle our victory with FAKE NEWS. A sorry state!”

He used the term fake news repeatedly this week. He’s like a kid with a new means of delegitimizing the free press. Or maybe not that new. You could be forgiven for feeling as if you’re watching the cultivation of a banana republic.

So let’s abandon the term fake news and go back to calling things lies, libel and fabrications. If we don’t, I fear we’ll have to put scare quotes around “fake news” nine times out of 10, in order to signal that the term is being used to mean something other than what it actually means.

We just don’t have enough scare quotes to do that. I hear some desperate people are resorting to using backticks. I bet you don’t even know where the backtick key is, and I’m not sure I want to live in a world that forces you to find out.

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Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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