Too Many Media Orgs Are Still Regurgitating Trump’s Lies

While many credible media organizations learned lessons from 2016, some are still acting as Trump's stenographers. They make right-wing media's job easier.
President Donald J. Trump stops to talk with reporters outside the South Portico of the White House Sunday morning, Feb. 23, 2020, prior to boarding Marine One to begin his trip to India. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

President Donald J. Trump stops to talk with reporters outside the South Portico of the White House Sunday morning, Feb. 23, 2020, prior to boarding Marine One to begin his trip to India. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

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If there’s one thing that has become clear from Donald Trump’s foray into politics, he knows how to perfectly manipulate most of the media. Whether it’s by ‘accidentally’ typing a made-up word, ‘Covfefe’, or tweeting accusations in all-caps, Trump has the ability to get social media and the news industry focusing on what he’s said with a few clicks of his thumb on his smartphone, even when there’s no logic or evidence to support the posts.

You can see the tactics that Trump repeatedly deploys to ensure he can take over a news cycle when he desires: Sending associates out to restate his false claims as if that gives them more credence, jumbling up sentences, allowing statements to be open to interpretation, attacking anyone who might challenge his ideas in order to undermine their credibility, repeating or initiating conspiracy theories, elevating attacks that others have leveled without evidence, pushing debunked claims, and directly disputing factual events.

Tactics that are deployed over and over again are met with the same response. Trump takes to Twitter to distract, millions of people retweet him, right-wing outlets boost interest, and the mainstream media feels compelled to cover it. That cycle is one we’re all too familiar with now. Many members of the media never learn it seems, constantly getting caught in a web spun by POTUS 45.

The media’s responsibility is to cover, in a fair and balanced manner, those in positions of power. That’s no longer occurring in some in the media landscape as a sense of false equivalency and both sideism has taken hold. It’s been happening for some time now. While many do an excellent job, some in the press have failed in their duty to hold the current President of the United States to account, because they’ve become so focused on regurgitating Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing remarks, even where they have no basis in reality, in order to try and dim some of the spotlight that’s shining on him.

The intention when drawing attention to his behavior is presumably to challenge his position, but, all too often, that attention strengthens the President’s standing with his voter base. This was evident in a recent headline by TheHill that simply read: ‘Trump says Obama may have committed treason’. There was no clearly-displayed fact check or critical analysis alongside the headline.

Those who simply glanced at the headline on TheHill’s homepage, or who scrolled past it on social media, would have taken away a completely warped view of events because a news outlet just parroted Trump’s lie. The article got over 157k shared. While TheHill got this wrong, CNN got it right. Their headline was: ‘Trump falsely accuses Obama of treason in latest unfounded attack on his predecessor.’

There are many such instances. Only last month, many in the media were drawn into spending weeks of coverage discussing the possible merits, or otherwise, of a conspiracy theory because Donald Trump tweeted out one word: ‘OBAMAGATE’. As there was no immediate follow-up, no evidence to support the tweet, and no real knowledge of what Trump was talking about, many in the media, like hungry fish, took the bait. While many debunked the claim, others immediately began debating the issue, what Trump might have meant, what Obama could have done, etc, even though there was, and it’s difficult to stress this hard enough, absolutely nothing to back up the apparent accusation.

This approach isn’t an accident. This is classic Trump manipulation. Steve Bannon, who previously served as the Chief Strategist for Donald Trump, reportedly revealed the Trump plan when he stated: “The real opposition is the media and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s**t.”. The Trump administration muddies the water by putting nonsense stories in the spotlight, and then exploits the chaos when the media falls for it.

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We saw this during the 2016 presidential campaign and beyond. Although many have taken on lessons from the past, it’s now abundantly clear that some in the media haven’t learned from the mistakes it made that helped to elect Donald Trump and fuelled the division that has emerged in America. In fact, some in the media even reward and encourage this behavior, as key members of Donald Trump’s team, such as Kellyanne Conway, Kayleigh McEnany and Stephen Miller, who have frequently made false claims on behalf of the President, have regularly been invited back for media appearances and given key spots to continue to push their agenda with few repercussions.

After the previous presidential election, media outlets recognized how problematic it was to air Donald Trump’s rallies live and in their entirety, as this gave a platform to the spreading of falsehoods. While you’d imagine they would take a different approach, they were slow to learn that lesson. Donald Trump’s coronavirus briefings, often filled with deadly misinformation, were broadcasted in full and often without being fact-checked for weeks until they finally stopped airing them in their entirety. Luckily, Trump’s debut 2020 rally in Tulsa and his others earlier this year were not aired live in their entirety on all major networks like 2016. Television networks and radio stations have a choice. They don’t have to air falsehoods. They can choose to only give a platform to reliable sources of information.

With right-wing media being a dangerous propaganda arm for President Trump, the mainstream media needs to be better than this. Creating clickbait headlines that simply repeat baseless claims, whoever they are made by, is destructive to the political and democratic system. It’s not journalism. It’s denying people the information they require to make rational decisions about those in power. Giving the news consumer one side of the argument, trying to drive traffic to your output by taking the easier approach to reporting, is unbecoming of the media, and it fails the American people.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni outlined the dilemma reporters face by stating that: “If you write a story about the ridiculousness of Trump’s latest tweet, it gets a lot more traffic than an analysis of Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare-for-all plan.”. But, that’s not an excuse for taking that approach. That is an editorial choice to rank the attention a story receives as more important than the content of the story.

If Trump’s presidency has taught us anything it is that if you report on, and give attention to, deliberately false and misleading stories without fact-checking it, that only rewards those bad actors who spouted such content in the first place. Covering a story, regardless of its factual accuracy, dignifies it, unless equal weight and prominence are given to disputing any inaccuracies or falsehoods within the story. When the media airs information, they run the risk of normalizing it. The manner in which these stories are often written and presented further propels falsehoods into the mainstream and, thus, into the consciousness of the general public.

If the media feels compelled to cover the false claims that emanate from Donald Trump, his staff and surrogates, they should begin with a full fact check, including, most importantly, in the headline to prevent anyone who sees it, whether in detail or scrolling past on social media, from getting the wrong impression. Donald Trump and those who support him aren’t going to change. It seems that the retention of power will continue to make them willing to state and defend obviously false and misleading stories. The stories don’t necessarily need to persuade anyone to support them: their primary purpose is to cause confusion and disruption, often feeding divisiveness and distrust.

Of course, media outlets are commercial organizations and, like other businesses, they have to deal with the realities of needing to cover their costs and, ideally, turning a profit. There will be many very decent and well-intentioned and honorable journalists who will contend that the manner in which they position and cover stories reflects, in many ways, the demands and preferences of their consumers. That is undoubtedly true. But journalists also need to strive for accuracy and balance, providing the public with good information. In a well-functioning democracy, effective media is essential.

This article is not a criticism of individual journalists. On the whole, they are trying to do their best to cover what’s happening as quickly as possible and within the remit they are given. This is, though, a critique of some of the current methods of journalism and the new, evolved model that now seems to predominate. Media should constantly evolve and develop, but it has to do so in a way that’s designed to have a positive impact on those who consume it, not to just create attention-grabbing content. Enough is enough. There is no excuse for the media to continue this type of coverage. It’s time for the mainstream media to stop parroting Donald Trump’s lies, especially when the rightwing media already does a good enough job of that already.

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Opinion // Disinformation / Donald Trump / Media