Saturday, October 13, 2018

How the media is complicit in Trump’s campaign to ‘flood the zone with shit’

Judd Legum (popular.info) introduces the theme of today’s post in Trump’s accomplice.

Spreading the media thin is part of the plan. “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit,” Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, said.

This strategy paid off last week when the New York Times published a devastating piece, based on 100,000 documents, exposing how Trump and his father engaged in tax fraud to build their fortunes. The article, however, received only a modest amount of attention because, well, there was a lot of other stuff going on. Trump makes sure of it.

He makes sure of it by an increasing rate of lies. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact-checker, documents the acceleration of Trump falsehoods: President Trump has made more than 5,000 false or misleading claims.

On Sept. 7, President Trump woke up in Billings, Mont., flew to Fargo, N.D., visited Sioux Falls, S.D., and eventually returned to Washington. He spoke to reporters on Air Force One, held a pair of fundraisers and was interviewed by three local reporters.

In that single day, he publicly made 125 false or misleading statements — in a period of time that totaled only about 120 minutes. It was a new single-day high.

The day before, the president made 74 false or misleading claims, many at a campaign rally in Montana. An anonymous op-ed article by a senior administration official had just been published in the New York Times, and news circulated about journalist Bob Woodward’s insider account of Trump’s presidency.

Trump’s tsunami of untruths helped push the count in The Fact Checker’s database past 5,000 on the 601st day of his presidency. That’s an average of 8.3 Trumpian claims a day, but in the past nine days — since our last update — the president has averaged 32 claims a day.

Trump’s op-ed in the USA Today is the high profile example of how the media gives Trump a pass on his distorted view of the world - a view that generates self-made fake news that then permeates the media.

In another report, as a specific example, Glenn Kessler does Fact-checking President Trump’s USA Today op-ed on ‘Medicare-for-All’.

President Trump wrote an opinion article for USA Today on Oct. 10 regarding proposals to expand Medicare to all Americans — known as Medicare-for-All — in which almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.

… this is not a serious effort to debate the issue. So as a reader service, we offer a guide through Trump’s rhetoric.

Kessler lists and rebuts many of Trump’s numerous false claims about Medicare. For examples, I return to the popular.info report for a selection of “five whoppers.”

Weaponizing USA Today

There is a history of presidents publishing op-eds in USA Today, one of America’s largest papers with a daily print readership of 2.6 million people. Obama published an op-ed in the paper commemorating the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. Bush wrote one on the day of his reelection entitled, “Why you should vote for me today.” Bill Clinton’s commemorated the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination.

But no president has ever published a column in USA Today like the one published on Wednesday by Trump.

Trump’s op-ed is a diatribe against the Democrats’ health care agenda, particularly Medicare for All. That’s no accident. Healthcare has emerged consistently as a top issue for voters heading into the midterm elections.

The piece is also full of demonstrable lies.

Trump v. the truth

This entire newsletter could be devoted to fact-checking Trump’s op-ed. Virtually every sentence is false or misleading. But to give you a taste, here are five whoppers.

Trump writes: “As a candidate, I promised that we would protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions… I have kept that promise.”

The Trump administration has refused to defend the Affordable Care Act, which established protections for people with pre-existing conditions, against a lawsuit filed by Republican Attorneys General. In a brief filed with the court, the Trump administration argued that protecting people with pre-existing conditions is unconstitutional. If the Trump administration gets its way, the provision will be struck down.

Trump writes: “We are now seeing health insurance premiums coming down.”

Insurance premiums, on average, are still going up. Insurance premiums would be lower in many states if Trump had not taken steps to sabotage the Obamacare exchange.

Trump writes: “Democrats have already harmed seniors by slashing Medicare by more than $800 billion over 10 years to pay for Obamacare.”

Obamacare extended the life of Medicare by adding a payroll tax for wealthy Americans. The $800 billion in savings came largely from trimming back reimbursements from health care providers, not reducing care for seniors.

Trump writes: “I am fighting so hard against the Democrats’ plan that would eviscerate Medicare.”

Trump’s op-ed targets Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation. That bill would expand Medicare to cover all Americans and create additional benefits like dental and eye care.

Trump writes: “Republicans believe that a Medicare program that was created for seniors and paid for by seniors their entire lives should always be protected and preserved.”

For many years, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has proposed ending Medicare as we know it and replacing it with “premium support.” In other words, replacing Medicare with a subsidy for private insurance. Democrats successfully fought against the plan.

USA Today’s epic failure

Surprisingly, USA Today claims that it fact-checked Trump’s op-ed. A statement from USA Today’s editorial page editor Bill Sternberg:

We see ourselves as America’s conversation center, presenting our readers with voices from the right, left and middle. President Trump’s op-ed was treated like other column submissions; we check factual assertions while allowing authors wide leeway to express their opinions. Readers are invited to submit opposing viewpoints and provide additional context, some of which will be published in the days ahead.

It’s unclear what kind of fact check was undertaken since the errors were obvious. Many of Trump’s lies are exposed by the very sources he links to in the article.

For Trump’s claim that he has kept his promise to protect people with pre-existing conditions, for example, the article links to a Washington Post fact check explaining that he broke his pledge.

What good is a fact check if it allows authors to publish things that are not true?

USA Today even featured one of the most obvious falsehoods on its Twitter account, which has 3.6 million followers.

To survive in Trump’s world, the media must change

There are many media fact checkers. But their work hasn’t changed Trump’s behavior because he knows that more people will hear what he says, without context, than slog through a lengthy fact check of his claims.

To fulfill its mission of providing accurate information to the public, the media must change their tactics.

For example, instead of producing fact checks after Trump’s appearances, cable networks could have a rapid response team on hand any time they decide to air a Trump speech, equipped with the facts needed to correct Trump’s most repeated lies.

If every time Trump said something false, networks displayed the facts on half of the screen, it may or may not change Trump’s behavior. But it would certainly change the experience for viewers.

In other words, we need to flood Trump’s zone with facts. For every Trump lie, the media should publish - in real time - 10 truths.

To combat Trump’s torrent of misinformation, the media needs to think outside the box. If outlets continue to treat Trump as if he was the same as other presidents, they will continue to be complicit in his efforts to warp reality for the American public.

Greg Sargent (Washington Post/Plum Line) pens a Memo to the media: Stop spreading Trump’s fake news.

It is a great irony of the current political moment: By broadcasting forth Trump’s lies in tweets and headlines — while declining to inform readers that they are just that, and while burying the truth deep within accompanying articles — the organizations that Trump regularly derides as “fake news” are themselves spreading a species of fake news.

… the problem remains one that plenty of traditional journalists and news organizations still refuse to take seriously enough. You constantly see headlines on news organizations’ websites that blare forth a politician’s false, dubious or unsupported claims without informing readers that those claims are, well, false or dubious or unsupported. Often it requires reading deep into a story to discover a corrective, if there is a corrective at all.

This is part and parcel of a broader problem, in which too many newspaper editors and television producers still continue to fear that if they forcefully — and prominently, right in tweets and headlines — call out Trump’s lies for what they are, they will somehow come across as biased or lacking in objectivity. Indeed, some editors have offered the tortured argument that they should refrain from using the word “lie” because it suggests knowledge of Trump’s intent to mislead, which cannot be conclusively established.

But this rigs the game in Trump’s favor: One cannot ever conclusively prove whether Trump is intentionally lying, as opposed to just delusional or hopelessly uninformed. Yet if Trump repeats a falsehood over and over after it has been debunked, it is obviously deliberate deception; if news organizations refrain from calling this out as such, they are failing to accurately describe what is right there in plain sight.

This misleads readers and viewers not just in each particular case. Importantly, it also misleads them more broadly about the truly sinister and deliberate nature of Trump’s ongoing campaign to obliterate the possibility of shared agreement on facts and on the news media’s legitimate institutional role in keeping voters informed. The resulting standard does not reckon seriously with the scale of the challenge to the truth he poses. It ends up portraying his ongoing campaign of flood-the-zone lying as conventional dishonesty or mere incompetence, which in turn paints a profoundly misleading picture of the realities of the current moment.

To be fair, there have been many signs that leading journalists grasp the urgent need for their profession to rise to all these current challenges. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter’s newsletter recently reported that within newsrooms, there is “more and more introspection” about the media’s response to Trumpian deception tactics, and about whether the press is compounding the “damage” by airing and repeating falsehoods without any adequate institutional response to it.

So we may be in the midst of another transition, similar to the one that unfolded a generation ago. The news media seems to be retaining its core institutional independence and appears to be finding new ways to adapt. But as Hannah Arendt put it in a famous 1967 meditation on “Truth and Politics,” back during that previous period of serious institutional adaptation by the press, those two things — politics and factual truth — are perpetually “on rather bad terms with each other.”

Thanks to the rise of Trump, those terms are particularly bad right now. Perhaps we will get through this. But we are learning all over again, as Arendt put it, that “factual truth is fragile in politics, and its survival is never guaranteed.”

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