In what amounts to a declaration of corporate solidarity with the White House, two major conservative news outlets are letting their audiences know that they are not part of the “fake news media” that President Donald Trump frequently attacks.
The term “fake news,” coined during the 2016 presidential campaign to describe deliberately fabricated information packaged to resemble news articles, was quickly co-opted by Trump. He used the term to describe stories he disliked and the outlets that produced them as part of a broader effort to delegitimize the American press. At the same time, Trump made clear that there were outlets he preferred that were not part of the “fake news” problem.
Fox News’ new slogan presents the network as opposing this “fake news” media. Ad Age’s Jeanine Poggi reported yesterday that the network is “readying a new ad campaign with the tagline, ‘Real News. Real Honest Opinion.’” As with past Fox slogans, this one should be read as an implicit attack on the rest of the press -- what is the purpose of calling your network “fair and balanced” if not to suggest that the others are not?
Fox’s conservative commentators have spent much of the Trump administration echoing his inflammatory statements that journalists at other outlets deliberately fabricate stories -- they even drew criticism from the network’s elder statesman, Chris Wallace, for unfairly “bashing the media.” But now Fox as a whole is implicitly suggesting that the rest of the press is “fake news.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group, the corporate behemoth that uses a network of nearly 200 local news stations to stealthily promote nationally produced right-wing spin, is reportedly prepping a similar, even more explicit campaign.
According to internal documents obtained by CNN, local anchors are being forced to film ad spots that criticize “some members of the national media” for publishing “fake stories” because they want to “push their own personal bias and agenda.” The ad copy provides this contrast: “We understand Truth is neither politically 'left or right.' Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.”
Media branding efforts like this tell you something about how the outlets view their audiences. Since Trump’s election, The Washington Post has adopted the slogan “democracy dies in darkness,” The New York Times has run ads stating that “The truth is more important now than ever” and criticizing “alternative facts,” and CNN has stressed that “there is no alternative to a fact” and that “opinions matter” but “they don’t change the facts.” In each case, the outlet is betting that its audience wants journalism that finds the truth, even in the face of hostility from those in power. At times, the outlets have been challenged by critics, including Media Matters, pointing out that they have not lived up to those promises.
The Fox and Sinclair campaigns are telling their audience something very different. They are telling their viewers that they stand with the president of the United States, in opposition to his foes in the rest of the press. They are stating -- implicitly in the case of Fox, explicitly in the case of Sinclair -- that while other media outlets are producing “fake news,” they are not. It’s a declaration that the networks are a safe space for conservatives: If you are worried about turning on the television and hearing criticism of the president, you can tune in to these networks and instead hear praise of his many successes.
The Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote last year that the central media divide was between what she termed the “reality-based press,” which tries to discover what the powerful are doing and hold them to account, and “propaganda” outlets that seek to obscure the truth and protect those in power. Both Fox and Sinclair have made it as clear as possible which side of that divide they fall on.