The worst thing about Trump's 'fake news' warning

There’s something my former CBS News colleague Lesley Stahl said a while back that continues to haunt me. It was something she says President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE told her, off camera, in July 2016, after he already had enough votes to win the GOP presidential nomination.

The conversation supposedly came after Stahl interviewed Trump for “60 Minutes.” She says she told him that his constant bashing of the media was tiresome. 

“Why are you doing it?” she says she asked him. “You're doing it over and over and it’s boring. It’s time to end that; you’ve won the nomination. And why do you keep hammering at this?”

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According to Stahl, the man who would be president responded with this: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”

I wasn’t there, so I couldn’t say for sure if Stahl’s story was the truth. But I suspect it was because, over the years, I had conversations with both Stahl and Trump — and it sounds like something he would say.

But I’m a reporter, so I found somebody who was in the room at the time of the reported conversation, someone who told me Stahl’s version was absolutely correct. 

As I say, that happened several years ago, but it’s relevant today, since Trump can’t go 10 minutes without saying something nasty about the national news media. His favorite shot is that some of the biggest news organizations in America traffic in “fake news.”

I’ve been a working journalist covering national news since 1972 — 28 of those years as a correspondent at CBS News — and I can tell you that Trump is wrong. 

Do journalists make mistakes from time to time? Yes. 

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Do too many journalists have it in for the president and slant their stories to make him look bad? Yes to that, too.

Is there a liberal bias in the so-called mainstream media? Absolutely.

Yet, except in the rarest of instances, journalists do not make up stories out of nothing just to hurt him.

When he says the “fake news” media concoct sources to make him look bad, he’s wrong. 

To Trump, “fake news” is just about any news that he doesn’t like. So what should we make of his comment to Stahl, that he goes after the media for cynical political reasons? There are more than a few takeaways. 

One is that he doesn’t understand that, in a free country, we need not only a free press but also a press that has the trust of the American people. Yes, journalists have done their share to discredit themselves. But we don’t need the president contributing to what is already an unhealthy situation.

Another takeaway is that he does understand but doesn’t care. All that counts, as far as Trump is concerned, is that Trump looks good. And if that means yelling “fake news” whenever a story pops up that puts him in a negative light, he’ll yell “fake news” all day long.

And here’s the worst part: Even if there were incontrovertible proof substantiating what Stahl says, even if there were a videotape of Trump saying he attacks journalists so the public at large won’t believe them when they report something negative about him, the president’s most devoted fans almost certainly wouldn’t care. They love him and they hate the media. And if the president lies about journalists to cover his own lies — well, that, I’m confident, would be no big deal as far as those who adore him are concerned.

And that may be the most troubling, and depressing, part of all of this.

Bernard Goldberg, an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award-winning writer and journalist, is a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” He previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books, including “Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News” (2001) and “A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media” (2009). Find more of his columns at bernardgoldberg.com and follow on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.