Cato is generally credited with defining an orator as a good man skilled in speaking. A successful speech, by classical standards, was based on reason but was also strengthened by the knowledge that the person speaking was moral. As I write that, it amazes and depresses me that I have to use past tense and include the qualifying prepositional phrase. There was—and, yes, still is—an art to presenting oneself in such a way as to be trusted and believed. The term sophist was used in Cato’s time for a teacher of rhetoric in general, but eventually came to be associated with a man who presented what seemed to be a logical argument but was actually fallacious or specious. Thus the derogatory term sophistry.
Donald Trump has long used the term fake news for much of the negative press that he receives. In doing so, he provides an interesting twist on rhetorical strategies used to present one’s self as an ethical speaker. A comment that he made to Lesley Stahl in passing when she interviewed him during the 2016 presidential campaign has attracted attention lately because of what it reveals about his alternative rhetorical strategy. Speaking to fellow journalists recently, Stahl reported that she asked Trump about his constant attacks on journalists. She told him, “You know, that is getting tired. Why are you doing this? You’re doing it over and over. It’s boring, and it’s time to end that.” His response: “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.”
We’ve long since passed the point where news was simply news. If news was as objective as it should be, it wouldn’t matter if we got it from Fox or CNN, but we all know how much it does matter. The line between news reporting and commentary on the news has become so blurred that it doesn’t even exist anymore. And we are all aware how easily news reports can be slanted based simply on what is included and what is left out. Even our entertainment reflects this understanding. The Newsroom was a television show that ran 2012-14. One viewer explained its premise in this way: “A news team attempts to create a news show that reports the news in an ethical and reasonable way. They take real, newsworthy events from our world as they're happening (such as bin Laden's justified killing, NSA spying, etc) and report on them as if they were an actual news station that followed rational and moral guidelines, in a biting criticism of our popular press and a clever blurring of art and reality.” Unfortunately, the reality of how news is handled these days comes closer to what happens in the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, summarized in this way by a viewer: “After being caught in a scandalous situation days before the election, the president does not seem to have much of a chance of being re-elected. One of his advisers contacts a top Hollywood producer in order to manufacture a war in Albania that the president can heroically end, all through mass media.”
News as manufactured truth is not news. More importantly, it’s not truth. There have always been sophists. What we need now is a term for those willing to accept manufactured truth.