The bitter reality for journalists covering a president who lies, and lies, and lies some more

Lie, debunk, repeat.
Lie, debunk, repeat.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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The American media is being played by the Trump White House’s propaganda machine, and journalists don’t know what to do. How should reporters cover a president who lies, constantly, shamelessly, and seemingly without consequence?

Vox argues that journalists should “stop repeating Trump’s lies.” As does Mother Jones. Politico points out that not covering everything Trump says and does is an option. The Washington Post noted that some news outlets are blowing off coverage when presidential events are not about substantive policy but merely acted out for fear mongering.

Trump isn’t just fumbling along. He intentionally distracts from issues that matter to Democrats, like healthcare, by getting Americans—not just his base, but especially—all riled up about issues like immigration. If you listen to Trump, you might imagine that there are no jobs or opportunities for Americans, that armies of foreigners are invading, and that immigration has not been a huge positive for the US economy. He is sending 15,000 US troops to the border of Mexico to stoke those fears, even as US Army officials estimate that only about 1,400 of 7,000 migrants traveling across Mexico now will actually reach the US border.

US news organizations are all grappling with the same question: “How should we cover the most powerful person in America, when he doesn’t tell the truth?” The issue has reached a turning point: After being invited to cover a presidential policy talk at the White House on Nov. 1, some television networks stopped their live coverage when it became an ugly, lie-filled invective about immigrants.

Classically, US journalists have reported on what the president does through the traditional lens of who, what, where and when with a dash of why, even while aiming for objectivity. This method assumes that the US president and his administration won’t, for the most part, say things that are demonstrably not true. (And yes, this has led to tragic mistakes before, like setting the stage for one of the most disastrous and bloody foreign policy errors of the modern era, George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq).

With Trump as both commander- and propagandist-in-chief, facts are fiction. His press team rolls out half-truths and falsehoods as it berates the media for not being nicer to him. Still reporters, particularly those in Washington, DC, need to report what the president and his aides actually say.

Debunking comes with a price

We’re learning that even pointing out that what Trump is saying is false—which requires repeating the lies themselves—only reinforces Trump’s assertions. If anything, it seems to make their effect stronger, giving oxygen to fringe ideas and conspiracy theories and making them part of the national discourse.

On Oct. 30, Trump claimed that the US is the only nation that grants birthright citizenship. In fact, one in four countries grant citizenship by virtue of birth on their soil, regardless of parental origins. Once Trump made the claim, however, it was out there, in the air and the internet. Outlets that restated the president’s contention without context were relaying a false statement.

Yet even the sort of retraction the Associated Press issued doesn’t undo the damage. When journalists repeat lies, we plant seeds, spreading the message the Trump White House wants people to hear, even as we try to debunk untruths. When Trump said that he wants to “terminate” birthright citizenship—though the plain language of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution provides for it—reporters then wrote about long-settled law as if it’s an open question or a novel concept, trying to prove the truth isn’t just whatever the president says.

Suddenly, America became enmeshed in a debate about the president ending birthright citizenship—something that even Trump supporter and outgoing speaker of the House Paul Ryan says is a ridiculous nonstarter.

A possible antidote to the Trump approach was offered up this summer by George Lakoff, an author, cognitive scientist and linguist who studies propaganda. He believes Trump needs the media, and the media help him by repeating his lies, but the president’s efforts could be thwarted with a “truth sandwich.” The recipe is simple. Reality is the bread and propaganda is the filler—when reporting on the president, Lakoff says, journalists should start with reality, then explain the president’s statement, and then finish with more facts—voila, a truth sandwich.

There will be no middle-class tax cut

The “10% middle class tax cut” Trump promised voters earlier in October is another recent example of his patented approach. There is literally no such plan in place. With Congress out of session, there was no way that Trump could get such a bill introduced before the November elections, and little chance of it ever happening at any time. But a slew of news outlets reported faithfully “Trump wants middle-class tax cut,” and now it’s a midterm campaign talking point for some Republicans.

Thus, Trump recreates our reality, one lie at a time, as we in the media become his mouthpiece, to the horror of the industry’s toughest critics:

This warping of US political discourse is being greatly accelerated by the Murdoch family, whose Fox News commentators have proven willing to repeat nearly anything that comes from the administration, verbatim, no matter how incendiary or obviously untrue. They’ve also become a useful tool for fringe conspiracy theorists to feed ideas directly to the president.

True, we should have known

Lying to the media is how Trump rose to these dizzying heights. Way back in 1976, Trump gave a starstruck New York Times reporter (“He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford“) a tour of “his” Manhattan buildings and projects.

The real-estate empire was actually bankrolled by his father, the Times reported in a blockbuster investigation 42 years later, showing the Trump family dodged taxes for decades. Trump and his daughter repeatedly lied to investors about his brand-name real-estate developments, just as he has lied about his net worth. His presidential campaign was built on lies about immigrants and China. And his business dealings provide a roadmap to how he will make any promise necessary to get what he wants.

But a competitive news industry that’s been stripped of profits and staffing in recent decades has been gorging on Trump’s lies and showboating instead.

When asked directly about his lying, Trump told ABC News recently that he tries to tell the truth “when I can.” Specifically with respect to the birthright-citizenship figures, he was merely repeating what he’d been told, he claimed. Thus, the president turned his ignorance into innocence, as if it’s not a president’s job to know what he’s talking about.

With the full power and resources of the US government at his fingertips, Trump could easily find the facts about everything from citizenship to immigrant-related crime to Chinese currency manipulation. But he won’t. It’s easier, and more politically useful, to lie.

As for the reporters who cover him, we are still figuring it out as we go along.