Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Greg Sargent: Trump 'lies' and "news organizations should say so"

Greg Sargent, writing at the Washington Post’s Plum Line, says Yes, Donald Trump ‘lies.’ A lot. And news organizations should say so. Selected snippets follow.

With Trump set to take control of the presidency, media figures are currently engaged in a spirited debate over how to handle the Trump administration’s approach to the news media, now that it looks likely he will continue employing the unprecedented levels of dishonesty he wielded to great effect during the campaign.

The early returns in this debate are not encouraging. In fact, they suggest that we in the news media are simply unprepared for the challenges the Trump presidency will pose to us. I’ve already tried to argue that news orgs are needlessly helping Trump’s use of unverified claims result in precisely the headlines he wants.

Now here’s yet another data point. On “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd pressed Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker on whether his paper would call out Trump’s lies for what they are, as other news orgs have been doing with more regularity. Baker’s response is worth quoting in full, because it should go into the time capsule for future generations to ponder in puzzling out what happened in this country at the outset of the 21st century:

I’d be careful about using the word, “lie.” “Lie” implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead. … when Donald Trump says thousands of people were on the rooftops of New Jersey on 9/11 celebrating, thousands of Muslims were there celebrating, I think it’s right to investigate that claim, to report what we found, which is that nobody found any evidence of that whatsoever, and to say that.

I think it’s then up to the reader to make up their own mind to say, “This is what Donald Trump says. This is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports. And you know what? I don’t think that’s true.” I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they’ve lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective.

And I do think also it applies — this is happening all the time now, people are looking at Donald Trump’s saying and saying, “This is false. It’s a false claim.” I think people say, “Well, you know what? Hillary Clinton said a lot of things that were false.” I don’t recall the press being quite so concerned about saying that she lied in headlines or in stories like that.

This is stunning stuff. Baker has fallen for the false equivalence schtick hook, line, and sinker. I will repeat: PolitiFact studied over 200 statements from each candidate and found 71% of Clinton’s to be true but 70% of Trump’s to be false. That is not equivalence. Moreover, Baker has bought into the bogus fear that stating the truth will make journalists less than objective. Sargent continues.

The comparison to Clinton is silly. Trump lied far more often, and far more egregiously, than Clinton did. Not only that, unlike Clinton, most of the time Trump’s campaign felt no obligation whatsoever to back up his claims when they were called out as false. And to a far greater degree, Trump would simply continue repeating those lies after they’d been exposed. It is the nature of Trump’s dishonesty — the volume, ostentatiousness, nonchalance, and imperviousness to correction at the hands of factual reality — that became the issue. (See The Post fact-checking team’s deep dive into this phenomenon for all the evidence you need.) (Scriber: Check out Sargent’s post for the many links to supporting documents in this paragraph.)

This gets at why Baker’s response is so worrying: It suggests an unwillingness or an inability to entertain the possibility that we may be looking at something new and different here. Take the example that Baker himself chose: Trump’s claim that “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims celebrated 9/11. This was not some casual falsehood — this lie was key to a months-long campaign of vilification and scapegoating of Muslims that in turn was central to his broader appeal. As Glenn Kessler pointed out at the time, Trump repeatedly refused to entertain any evidence to the contrary even when it was directly presented to him. Indeed, his campaign team responded to media efforts to present that contrary evidence by accusing the media of covering up the truth.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet has come closer to getting this right, pointing out that we must label Trump’s lies as such because he has shown a willingness to go beyond the “normal sort of obfuscation that politicians traffic in.” Writer Masha Gessen has gone even further, suggesting that Trump’s approach to information — or disinformation — looks like a hallmark of Putinesque autocratic rule, in which the autocrat is trying to “assert power over truth itself,” and convey the message that his “power lies in being able to say what he wants.” We don’t yet know if this will prove an accurate description of Trump’s approach as President. But given the authoritarian tendencies we’ve already seen from Trump, it seems like we should at least be on guard for this possibility. Baker’s nonchalance suggests a lack of preparedness for what we may be facing.

That is scary. If the media is merely a stenographic echo chamber for Trump’s tweets then our democracy will have been sabotaged by the very institution that has the duty of protecting it. If "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”, then what if there is no one willing to tell the truth?

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