News media are no strangers to hoaxes. From the proverbial guy in his pajamas who gets his jollies making up internet rumors to the deceptively edited videos of James O’Keefe, hoaxes have become a common hazard in this business. The old journalistic axiom, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” has seldom seemed more apropos.
But in its very sophistication, this attempted hoax represents a quantum leap. While some people lazily cry “Fake news!” every time facts don’t go their way, someone is out there actually creating fake news in hopes of getting a journalist to bite on it and damage her reputation in the process.
Consider it superfluous proof that the institutions sustaining this democracy are under assault. The presidency, of course, is being attacked from within by the aforementioned boy president in all his preening incompetence. Many observers have found solace in believing his denigrations of that office will be kept at least somewhat in check by three other institutions: Congress, the courts and the media. But that optimism may or may not be vindicated.
Congress, after all, has only fitfully managed to muster the moral courage to hold the rogue president to account. The courts have proven somewhat braver, though their legitimacy has been repeatedly undermined.
Meantime, news media have done yeoman’s work in untangling Trump’s troubling ties to Russia. But this has come against a backdrop of abuse without modern precedent.
Bad enough reporters have been called names and even physically attacked. But if you really want to harm a journalist, you go after her credibility. That’s the one indispensable element of news gathering and reporting, the thing without which a journalist cannot meaningfully function. And last week, somebody tried to assassinate Maddow’s.
All of us in the news business should stand warned. But we ought not be surprised.
After all, Donald Trump is a liar. By necessity, the people who defend him are liars, too. And obviously, to lie is to stand in opposition to the truth. Small wonder, then, that these people are so profoundly threatened by a profession whose prime directive is to find the truth and tell it. Small wonder that they fear us.
You can gauge the depth of that fear in the sophistication of last week’s attack. That attempted hoax suggests two things. The first is that this may be the opening of a troubling new front in the right wing’s war on journalism.
The second is that we must be doing something right.
Writes for The Miami Herald.