New “Fake News” Denials Ripped From Old Playbook

When the President of the United States dismisses serious stories by established media organizations as “Fake News” (a term originally coined to describe something far different), his supporters cheer, others cringe, some roll their eyes and many don’t know what to think.

But I stumbled across something in recent days that shows how this phenomenon, while the antithesis of what we recommend for clients that face bad news, has precedent.

“Deny and attack the accuser” has long been in the playbook of politicians and others to whom preserving power is the top, or only, priority and the truth gets in the way of an agenda.

Here’s what I found when making my way through the PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” via DVR. In episode three, the series explores how public perception of the War began to change in 1965 when CBS aired a report by Morley Safer that showed U.S. Marines burning down a village of civilians, Cam Ne. Here’s what the series says about what happened next, which reads as if it’s modeled after a 2017 example:

“The next morning the President (Lyndon Johnson) called his friend, Frank Stanton, the head of CBS…

‘Hello, Frank, this is your President. Are you trying to f*** me?’

‘Safer had to defaced the American flag,’ Johnson said. ‘He was probably an agent of the Kremlin…had to be fired.’

The Marines claimed safer had provided a Zippo lighter and asked the Marines to burn the hut for the camera. A Major at the Da Nang Marine Press Office called CBS the ‘Communist Broadcasting System.’

But after the operation, Safer interviewed some of the Marines who had burned Cam Ne…. and…(General) Westmoreland (later) admitted ‘we have a problem that will be with us as long as we are in Vietnam.'”

Of course, Safer would go on to be a revered figure in the history of broadcast journalism.

Other examples come to mind. Ronald Reagan’s statement, in a Prime Time address, as the Iran-Contra scandal was coming to light in 1986, “Those charges are utterly false,” slamming reporting based on anonymous sources as “rumors.”

An even more infamous example occurred in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal in early 1998, when Hillary Clinton appeared on the Today Show to deny the allegations that had come to light and attribute it to a “vast right wing conspiracy” as part of a two-step “deny and attack the accuser” strategy.

In these examples, and others, history stands firmly on the side of the news and opposed to the side of this type of reaction.