Politicians have a reputation for lying. They are often painted as twisting and manipulating the truth to fit their agenda. Yet even in a profession replete with so many dishonest people, Donald Trump and his alternative facts team truly stand out. On the 18th of February, Donald Trump took the stand at a rally of his in Florida to boldly comment on the atrocities that had occurred in Sweden the previous night. These atrocities, he intimated, had been the direct result of relaxed borders and Sweden’s history of admitting large numbers of refugees.
Of course, nothing had happened the previous night in Sweden. Swedish and American Twitter unified accordingly, creating an instant coalition to mock the President for his misinformed and flatly false statement.
However, while mocking Trump’s speech is an understandable initial reaction, it’s also a prime example of how Trump and his administration receive information and redistribute it on a presidential platform. Such an instance begs a number of questions. Where did Trump get this information about an attack? Did he know this wasn’t true and just said it anyway to make his point, or was he just confused? We already have an idea of the initial source of this information. Trump tweeted after his speech saying that his comments had come from a Fox News piece by Tucker Carlson inviting filmmaker Ami Horowitz to discuss the link between the rise of both asylum seekers and the crime rate in Sweden.
This report, and the notion of correlation between crime rates and refugee intake in Sweden, have since been debunked by a series of legitimate media sources, and the Swedish government themselves, thanks to the availability of simple statistics. That being said, the fact that the Fox News report was based on biased information rather than facts is hardly surprising. This story fits in line with a pattern of right-wing media reporting heavily biased stories that sensationalize Islamic extremism in Europe. Whether it be stories of rising crime rates in Sweden, of “no go” zones in London that enforce shari’a law, or of migrant rape gangs at Swedish music festivals, for years now we have seen the distortion of news by right-wing outlets through the use of Islamophobic rhetoric.
One of the champions of this distorted right-wing reporting is Breitbart News. Breitbart has run on a platform of right-wing sensationalism, publishing stories with little factual evidence. It has been branded as “fake news” by well respected professionals. However, despite this labeling, the news organization has wiggled its way to the forefront of the executive branch and right-wing politics. Sean Spicer has handed exclusive interviews to Breitbart, while labeling publications such as the New York Times as fake news. Also notably, former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon is Trump’s senior adviser. A news organization that only a year ago was seen as far right-wing gonzo journalism now seems to be fully interlocked with the United States’ executive branch.
This interlocking is not without precedent. The way in which Fox News interacted with the Bush administration is somewhat similar. Dick Cheney requested that only Fox News be played in his hotel suites while on the road and former White House Press secretary Tony Snow had his own Fox News Radio show before joining the Bush administration. Fox News has taken a very soft and biased stance on Trump, as they have on most Republicans since the network’s creation. That being said, their title doesn’t fall within fake news in the same way Breitbart’s does. While Fox News does present a distorted reality, it is mainly through their use of commentary as a legitimate source of news. Giving the impression, in any way, that old bloviating white men talking on issues without proper facts is news, as shows like “The O’Reilly Factor” are presented, is unethical in its own right. However, commentary has a place in journalism too, as our own McGill Daily shows, and in recent times Fox anchors have provided a more objective analysis on Trump. Breitbart’s sensational headlines and promotion of conspiracy as news goes beyond the biased reporting of Fox News, which, while detrimental, holds some journalistic credibility.
Even if Breitbart weren’t Breitbart, this situation would not be ideal. The overlapping of politics and media interests can quickly work itself to become propaganda. The media doesn’t necessarily have to remain objective. Media bias has existed within the US media sphere for years, and even publications that aim to exercise objectivity often struggle with maintaining impartiality. Journalism should at the very least maintain some distance from the subject it reports on, yet what we have seen from the relationship between the White House and Breitbart is a generation and perpetuation of lies. Whether it be Sean Spicer lying about the size of the crowds at Trumps inauguration, Trump’s claim that protesters are paid, or his latest instance of misinformation, this administration and Breitbart appear to have pushed very similar false narratives and labeled them as facts.
The sitting administration has not only promoted such falsehoods but also looked to shut out opposing viewpoints. Breitbart and Trump have both labeled historically reputable news sources like the New York Times and Washington Post as fake news, and Sean Spicer recently moved to annex these publications out of press briefings. Whatever published viewpoint that corrodes the fabric of this alternative reality being created by government and media alike is either shut out or lambasted as false. These comments and actions have worked to vilify mainstream media and present Breitbart and other biased media organizations as the only “honest” forms of media.
Unfortunately, this tactic seems to have somewhat worked, as Breitbart has drifted into the realm of legitimate news for many. Breitbart’s readership has ballooned since Trump came to prominence. In October 2014 the site had around 8 million visitors and only 4% of the news market readership visited Breitbart. In July 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy, the site received an uptick which has gradually grown, with Breitbart amassing 18 million visitors and 9% of the news market readership in July 2016. These generators of “alternative facts” have taken over the mainstream and forced us to have conversations that, because they’re based on false premises, we shouldn’t be having at all. When Trump cites things like “the attacks on Sweden,” he is citing news sources like Breitbart and the far-right voice on Fox News, and when he gives Breitbart special interviews, or appoints its former editor as his right-hand man, it gives legitimacy to false reporting that simply affirms Trump’s twisted perspective on reality. It creates a cycle that perpetuates hate and silences criticism.
The recent immigration ban, which has been reported as the brainchild of former Breitbart editor Bannon, appears to now be policy that is justified by this insidious relationship between media and government. Justification for the travel ban is centered around Breitbart-friendly numbers and ideas, which are either simply false or highly debated. The Trump administration has made it evident that it has no real interest in understanding the complexities of the immigration crisis. Rather, it would prefer to use the l relationship it has with Breitbart to legitimize its position with little questioning and promote anti-immigration propaganda.
The symbiosis between Trump and news sources like Breitbart means that Trump has now transitioned to the position of megaphone for right-wing distorted media. Trump parrots the reports and sentiments Breitbart and Fox News express, and then these media outlets refuse to critique him. Even if it isn’t propaganda, Trump is, at the very least, championing the formerly fringe presence of fake news.
Numbers such as the fact that the US is already ranked as 75th for number of refugees admitted per 1000 people, or the fact that in Germany migrants proportionally commit less crime than native Germans, are completely neglected by the Trump administration. While it is true that Islamic extremism has caused issues for Europe, the Trump administration has chosen to focus on this singular issue and completely reject all media sources that offer differing opinions. Meanwhile, the White House’s favoured news sources are communicating these same false premises to the public. As citizens we must either reject the propaganda that the Trump administration and Breitbart have worked in tandem to create, or else fall into an age-old authoritarian tactic.