Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?
That proposition might seem ludicrous. If the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?
This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard.
The story of Madeleine Westerhout, the 28-year-old aide to President Trump who was fired for sharing nasty gossip about the Trump family after having a few drinks with reporters, is fascinating (the original Politico story is here; some background from The New York Times is here).
Westerhout reportedly despised Trump so much that she burst into tears the night he was elected. Yet she went to work for him, brought into the White House by former chief of staff Reince Priebus despite an exceedingly thin résumé. She grasped for more power. And she showed no loyalty to the president whatsoever.
These are the kinds of people Trump surrounds himself with, because no one with integrity will have anything to do with him.
It would be interesting to learn how her off-the-record remarks became public. Daniel Lippman of Politico, who broke the story, wasn’t there, so he’s in the clear. Trump ally Arthur Schwartz, he of the media attack squad, has pointed the finger at Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, who was there. His editor issued a statement vouching for Rucker’s integrity without quite denying that Rucker was the source. Rucker has not written about the incident.
Most likely we’re not going to get to the bottom of this.
We’ve become accustomed to Trump outrages that seem OMG in the moment only to fade quickly into obscurity — replaced, as such things inevitably are, by the next insult, outburst or tweet. But even by those standards, a New York Times story reporting that Republican operatives with White House ties were seeking to embarrass President Trump’s adversaries in the media had an unusually short half-life.
It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.
From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.
Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.
President Trump has worn us down. The Mueller report — loaded with evidence that Trump obstructed justice and welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 campaign — bobs, floats, and then sinks beneath the surface. A credible accusation that he raped a woman several decades ago barely registers. Dangerous rhetoric that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” once shocking, is now little more than background noise.
Sometimes, though, the terrible reality of the Trump presidency breaks through, at least for a moment. Such is the case with the hundreds of migrant children being held at a border detention center in Clint, Texas, under conditions of shocking cruelty, according to a group of lawyers that visited the camp. The children are reported to be cold, hungry, and filthy. Many are sick.
It looks like this front-page New York Times story that has drawn so much attention is almost a complete botch. Headlined “Mexico Agreed to Take Border Actions Months Before Trump Announced Tariff Deal,” the premise is that President Trump got nothing out of his tariff standoff and subsequent agreement with Mexico to increase border security. Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman write:
The deal to avert tariffs that President Trump announced with great fanfare on Friday night consists largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States over the past several months, according to officials from both countries who are familiar with the negotiations.
The story goes into considerable detail in an attempt to show that there’s nothing new about the U.S.-Mexico agreement, and that Trump is boasting about it solely as face-saving gesture.
But wait! Inside the paper, under the headline “Mexico Sets Domestic Priorities Aside to Meet Terms of U.S. Trade Deal,” Azam Ahmed reports that Mexico is going to considerable lengths to meet the terms of Trump’s demands in an effort to head off those tariffs. Ahmed writes:
Under an agreement hammered out in marathon negotiations with American officials over the last few days, Mexico agreed to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border with Guatemala. It also agreed to allow more asylum applicants to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending in the United States.
Further down in the story, there’s this:
But as Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Mexico on migration has increased, so, too, has the willingness of the López Obrador administration to take measures to calm its northern neighbor.
After initially saying the Remain in Mexico program was a pilot, Mexican officials quickly expanded it to new cities. Now, as part of the deal on Friday, they have agreed to expand it across the entire border.
Hat tip to Daniel Radosh of “The Daily Show,” who tweeted this out on Saturday:
Yelling louder about President Trump’s multitudinous lies isn’t going to change anything. Yet that’s what Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan suggested last week when she wrote in frustration about the lack of public outrage over the 10,000 “false or misleading statements” Trump has made since his inauguration.
Sullivan argued that “to do their jobs, the news media can’t engage in business as usual,” and that they “have to bring some new tools and techniques — and maybe a new attitude — to the project.” Her suggestions were commonsensical: be more willing to label falsehoods as lies and stop using euphemisms, as The New York Times did on Twitter recently when it blandly described Trump’s ugly libel that doctors who are performing abortions are “executing babies” as “an inaccurate refrain.”
But the idea that a more aggressive attitude on the part of the press will persuade Trump supporters to embrace facts that they don’t already know is not just absurd — it misunderstands the role of the media and the limits of journalism.
Consider that, by a wide margin, the public already regards the president as dishonest. According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted two months ago, 65 percent of those surveyed said that Trump was dishonest while just 30 percent said he was honest. In other words, the message that Trump lies is already being heard loud and clear.
Consider, too, the swamp of misinformation and disinformation that many of Trump’s supporters are mucking around in. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for instance, found that “fewer than 30 percent of Americans who get their news via broadcast TV, CNN or MSNBC believe Trump has been honest about the Russia probe, compared with 61 percent of Fox News viewers.”
The reality is that the media we choose is based in large measure on our tribal identity, and that identity is far more powerful than mere facts.
Currently I’m reading a collection of essays by the late media theorist James W. Carey. Carey’s writing tends to be difficult and obscure, but some of his ideas are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in the 1980s and ’90s. Especially useful to this discussion is his argument that media serve two functions: “transmission” and “ritual.”
The transmission function of media is to inform. In Carey’s view, it’s much more complicated than that — it’s tied up in notions of power and the ever-accelerating speed of media (from the town crier to the printing press, from the telegraph to the internet), which enables them to encompass ever more people and territory. But its essence is clear enough, and it’s what we generally mean when we think about the media.
By contrast, the media’s ritual function serves to reinforce a sense of community and identity. “If the archetypal case of communication under a transmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality,” Carey writes. Later, he adds, “ We recognize, as with religious rituals, that news changes little and yet is intrinsically satisfying; it performs few functions yet is habitually consumed. Newspapers do not operate as a source of effects or functions but as dramatically satisfying, which is not to say pleasing, presentations of what the world at root is.”
The problem, which Carey does not address because his work was published before the rise of partisan media, is that we are no longer reinforcing our shared sense of community with a mainstream newspaper and a daily visit with Walter Cronkite. Rather, we are hanging out with fellow tribe members in our own separate mediaspheres.
Seen in this light, calling more attention to presidential lying not only is ineffective but has the effect of confirming for Trump supporters that the mainstream press is not to be trusted and is fundamentally opposed to their interests and beliefs. At the same time, those mainstream outlets are themselves benefiting from tribal loyalties, as the anti-Trump majority rallies around newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. Yes, those outlets have reported factually, for the most part, on Trump’s many flaws, lies, and misdeeds. But they have done so in much greater quantity than would have been strictly necessary to transmit that information to the public.
Margaret Sullivan closed her call for more innovative approaches to reporting on Trump’s lying with this: “None of this, of course, will solve the problem. It’s unlikely to reverse the avalanche or slow the ever-increasing pace. But it may help an overwhelmed and numbed public find renewed reason to care.”
No, it won’t. Most of us are well aware that he’s lying, and some love him all the more for it. The function of news is to inform, of course. But it’s also to express and reinforce our common values. Sadly, hyperpolarization means that there no longer is one set of common values, but, rather, two, three, or more.
“Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said.
I want to take a brief look at a very small wrinkle within the much larger story of the Mueller Report. A number of observers have taken note that the report disputes an article that BuzzFeed News published back in January claiming that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors the president had “directed” him to lie before Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a tower in Moscow.
At the time, Mueller’s office took the unusual step of denying BuzzFeed’s story, and the release of the redacted Mueller Report on Thursday appeared to back that up. For instance, here is how NBC News puts it:
While Mueller acknowledged there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony about the Russian business venture, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”
BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith addressed the matter Thursday night, acknowledging that the Mueller Report contradicts what his journalists had claimed. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, in his daily newsletter, notes, “Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story.” But should he have? I don’t think so. Crucially, Smith also writes this:
On Feb. 27, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that Cohen said was familiar from past interactions.
Indeed Cohen did. We all saw him do it. I took it at the time, and I still do, that BuzzFeed’s reporting was essentially correct. Cohen by his own testimony told Mueller’s office that President Trump had made it clear he wanted him to lie. BuzzFeed interviewed two unnamed prosecutors who passed that information along. If Mueller has now concluded that didn’t actually amount to Trump directing Cohen to lie, it doesn’t change what Cohen perceived or how BuzzFeed’s sources understood what Cohen was telling them.
BuzzFeed’s headline and lead used the word “directed,” which is totally accurate. Where BuzzFeed overstepped was in publishing this sentence farther down: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” [my emphasis].
My two takeaways from this episode are, first, that BuzzFeed comes out of this looking pretty good; and second, that every word matters, especially when reporting on a story this explosive. The phrase “explicitly telling” hangs out there as the sole problem in a story that otherwise advanced our understanding of the Trump-Russia connection in a fundamental way.
It happened in plain sight. This isn’t a criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller, whose report hasn’t been released and who may not have found any criminal offenses. But we can’t unsee what we all saw.
[William] Barr’s note is clear that Mueller did not uncover evidence Trump and his gang were in direct cahoots with Russia’s covert operation to interfere with the US election and boost Trump’s odds. But the hyper-focus on this sort of collusion — as if Trump instructed Russian hackers on how to penetrate the computer network of the Democratic National Committee — has always diverted attention from a basic and important element of the scandal that was proven long before Mueller drafted his final report: Trump and his lieutenants interacted with Russia while Putin was attacking the 2016 election and provided encouraging signals to the Kremlin as it sought to subvert American democracy. They aided and abetted Moscow’s attempt to cover up its assault on the United States (which aimed to help Trump win the White House). And they lied about all this.