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CNN’s Brian Stelter on journalism and Donald Trump’s fake-news fog

CNN’s Brian Stelter says that every time U.S. President Donald Trump calls the news ‘fake,’ it gives journalists a chance to explain their jobs.

CNN

Last weekend, CNN's Brian Stelter counselled viewers of his Sunday morning show, Reliable Sources, to "refuse to be confused": to not let themselves be distracted by the fog of misinformation being spread by the Trump White House and, especially, its media surrogates such as Sean Hannity of Fox News.

On Wednesday, Stelter will be in Toronto to talk about the challenges for journalists and consumers in navigating their way through that fog. We spoke with him on Tuesday.

On a scale of one to three million – which is how many illegals voted for Hillary – how tired are you of talking about Fake News?

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The opposite. There are so many issues here with regards to stories that are meant to mislead you, political attempts to dismiss real stories, propaganda campaigns by foreign governments, and I think journalists have only begun to explain it to the public.

There's an exploding economy of falsity out there, including murky companies selling fake Twitter followers, which the New York Times covered last weekend. So, what is your primary role in that landscape?

I go back to the name of my show. I've been hosting Reliable Sources on CNN for four years and in that time there's been an explosion of sources and options for information. In a world where everybody is a source and everything is a source, the hard part is figuring out what's reliable. What is press-worthy.

What do you make of the fact that the term "fake news" was originally used to refer to stories that were entirely made up, for either political or economic gain, but it's now been co-opted by Donald Trump to refer to news he doesn't like?

It's disappointing from an academic standpoint, because the term "fake news," as popularized by [the Canadian journalist] Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed, described an important concept that needs to be studied further, and obviously the President has made that more complicated.

But every time the President calls the news "fake," it's a chance for people like me to explain how we know what the news is and how we know it's real and how the news is gathered and how the news is edited. To the extents that he is at war with the media, it's a chance for us to explain our jobs.

There's a bit of jiu-jitsu involved, because you need to respond to those attacks, but not let Trump be your assignment editor. So, how do you engage?

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I think this is a complicated issue. My general answer is that, when the President makes a public statement it is news, and that news should be acknowledged and covered. His tweets are public statements. They are used in court cases, they are used in campaigns, they affect international relations and they affect the stock market. So we know the tweets matter.

But that doesn't mean that we have to drop everything every time he tweets. And certainly there are a lot of days he tweets something outrageous and offensive that I do not run into work, I do not head into make-up, I do not hurry on to the air. There are choices being made behind the scenes every day. It may not look like it, but there are.

Last week, the market research firm Morning Consult published a survey of what it called the Most Polarizing Brands – companies about which Democrats and Republicans held strongly opposing views. Trump Hotels was number one. CNN placed second and was declared the most polarizing media brand. What do you make of that?

Morning Consult does not meet CNN's standards for polling, so on television and on the Web, we don't even cite that data. I think it's kind of funny that CNN has polling standards and members of the public don't know that. To the broader point, this is the first time in a lot of journalists' lifetimes that they're being approached by people on the street saying "Thank you." Right? And that's not just CNN, it's at other newsrooms as well. The public is so much more tuned in, so much more engaged.

We do live in a highly polarized moment. A few days ago, the commentator Sarah Kendzior, a vocal Trump critic, called on people to cancel their subscriptions to the New York Times because, she declared, it had become a "white supremacist paper" by virtue of publishing what she called "Nazi puff pieces" and "constant pro-Trump PR." Is there a way to do journalism in the Age of Trump that is not divisive?

What Sarah said about the Times is disgusting and I don't think it deserves any more attention from me, so I'll leave it at that. It's a reminder that the extreme anti-media views are not confined to the far-right. I try to be optimistic. I would say to you: Most Americans don't live in those extremes. Most Americans just want to know what the hell is going on every day.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

Brian Stelter will be in conversation with Dawna Friesen on Wednesday evening at Corus Quay in Toronto, presented by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said that "had the opposing party won" the U.S. presidential election, the stock market "would have been close to 50 per cent". The Associated Press
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