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"Fake News" is an unfounded charge; but American media does need to cut the euphemisms

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Thomas Jefferson had his own problems with the press, yet he said over and over that the freedom of the press was critical to any democracy. He famously wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Contrast this with President Trump, who plays to his base with: "The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it's TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!"

Enemy of the people? More than one reporter has received death threats motivated by this sort of irresponsible mudslinging.

Frankly, if anything, the media have been overly deferential. Trump owes his nomination to a media that was more concerned with ratings than with serious reporting. During the campaign, there was Trump stalking Hillary Clinton during their second debate — the press moderators said nothing. And let's not forget that nauseating sexist media performance put on by the now discredited and shamed Matt Lauer: All his questions to Clinton were about the emails, while nothing but softballs came Trump's way.

Today, instead of taking what Trump says and does head on, the TV media especially tend to rely on euphemisms that unavoidably take the edge off the subject: Here are just three examples, all falling under the heading "words matter:"

Euphemism No. 1: The media continues to call what the Russians did in 2016 "meddling." Actually, Russia in 2016, and now again in 2018, was and is conspiring (up to and including blackmail and theft) to "sabotage" our elections. This can't be reduced to "meddling." According to the FBI and all our other intelligence agencies, the Russians seek to turn our democratic electoral process into a kind of orchestrated shell game.

Euphemism No. 2: The press writes that Russia is engaged in "collusion" when in reality Russia is engaged in "conspiracy." From Black's Law Dictionary: "You can have collusion without having a criminal conspiracy, but you can't have a criminal conspiracy without some sort of collusion." What we have here is criminal conspiracy dependent on collusion. Let's start calling it what it is.

Euphemism No. 3: Today we aren't just seeing yet one more display of Trump's dysfunctional management style. He asks the public to support a dictatorial leader of an adversarial nation that has attacked an American election, and he dismisses exposure of this as "fake news." In fact, it wasn't the press that exposed the dark doings of Trump's favorite dictator — it was our entire intelligence community! Please, media, stop saying he just has a unique management style.

Trump regards Putin to be fine fellow, and tells us that getting along with him is a "good thing." Good thing? Traditionally we refer to aiding and abetting an adversary — and the Putin regime is exactly that — as "treason." Trump sees getting along with Putin to be good business, and I'd bet that if Congress and the American public ever got to see his tax returns we would all learn just how good business has been.

Which brings us to Euphemism No. 4, the most important of all: The media refer to Trump as a populist, which sounds kind of folksy, when in fact he is a textbook demagogue.

The current edition of The American Scholar features a lengthy article by historian W. Robert Connor, titled "A Vacuum at the Center." Connor, a senior editor for International Affairs Review, draws distinctions between the terms "populist" and "demagogue."

First he points out that the word populist was seldom used before the time of the Farmer's Alliance movement in the 1880s. But today, because it sounds less threatening, it's used broadly, certainly by Trump supporters. Connor then takes us all the way back to the Peloponnesian Wars, when the term demagogue was used almost exclusively. He writes: "Demagogues, unlike populists leaders do not have to stand on a well-crafted platform or espouse any longterm vision. Their strength comes from their skill at expressing and manipulating emotions." Does that ring a bell?

Connor refers to Cleon, the demagogue who came to power after Pericles died. Cleon "shouts, he bawls, his voice cracks. It's the new show in town, constant entertainment, hard not to watch." Populists do make policy mistakes, but most can easily be corrected. In contrast, the damage inflicted by demagogues, argues Connor, "can be more long lasting."

Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, warned future generations against demagogues. He suggested that most come to power as Cleon-like entertainers but end up as tyrants. Donald Trump is our modern day Cleon, a classic demagogue. Republicans, including Cathy McMorris Rodgers, need to find the courage to denounce him. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined "Words Matter"

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