The Press is Failing to Deal with Trump’s Falsehoods

Today I’m seeing a lot of tweets like the following:

Ryan Lizza ratchets up the rhetoric:

I agree with Lizza, but I think we’re past the point of simply calling out Trump for his lies–including using the word “lies” to do so. There was and probably still is debate among the press to use that word, but more and more journalists and news outlets seem more willing to use it now. In my opinion, we’re way past that issue. What should the press do instead? I’m not entirely sure, but here’s one thing that comes to mind. Instead of doing a one hour fact checking show, how about doing a one hour program showing that Trump has almost no credibility and says things in bad faith far too often? And then explain how this will impact coverage from here on out.

With regard to credibility and operating in good faith, Trump has already crossed a line (maybe more than one). The issue isn’t just that he lies, but that he does so in such a way that his credibility is approach zero. It’s almost to the point where you can’t take anything he says seriously. They type and frequency of his falsehoods is such that he’s not operating with the press in good faith. He no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt. We’re at the point where there’s little or no doubt that he’s operating in bad faith.

Using the word “lie” and counting his lies are trivial at this point. The problem is, what does the press do next? It seems like totally uncharted waters, and I can understand trepidation going the route I’m suggesting. I think a good way to deal with that trepidation is to make a long special report explaining the situation to the public. I think a really strong case can be made that Trump can’t be trusted and shouldn’t be treated as if he’s operating in good faith. (Why doesn’t a left-leaning outlet like MSNBC do something like this?) Part of this special report could included a decision-tree matrix for how the press determines whether a politician has lost credibility and/or the benefit of the doubt. I have a feeling the press doesn’t have such a matrix, so they’ll have to create one. (Ultimately, they should create a matrix that would help identify when a politician can be covered as an authoritarian.)
Ideally, the conservatives would be involved with this special report as well.

Here’s what continues to bother me about the situation. Imagine working with someone like Trump. At the beginning, you would probably give the person the benefit of the doubt. The first time they lie, if there’s an understandable reason, maybe you let it go. They may tell you a conspiracy theory they believe, and maybe you suspect they’re not entirely serious. But if those lies continue, and more evidence suggests they actually think in a conspiratorial fashion, their credibility would start to diminish. If they now tell lies to your face, you confront them about it, and they still maintain the lie, you’re moving into another realm. Now, you may start feeling hostile towards the person. If they start falsely accusing people in your workplace that hostility may grow, moving the situation into another realm. Each time the relationship enters a different phase, your perception and treatment of the person significantly changes as well, and that’s appropriate. That’s not happening with the press, and that bothers me.


OK, reporters calling out lies to the President’s face is something different:

I think this is a meaningful step.


I thought this excerpt has parallels with coverage of Trump and Trump’s handling of the press:

8 thoughts on “The Press is Failing to Deal with Trump’s Falsehoods

  1. “You need to face something squarely: You’re confronted with radical hacking of your own systems of operation. This requires radical rethinking of those systems.”

    That’s a quote from a Medium piece by Dan Gillmor that I really liked. In it, Gillmor criticizes the presses’ approach to Trump. He makes a good point about the way that pointing out Trump’s lies and correcting them can do a disservice to the public:

    Researchers have shown conclusively that repeating the lie tends to reinforce it. There’s some evidence that challenging lies can help in some circumstances, but most of what you’re doing is amplifying lies.

    Gillmor also provides recommendations, including not putting people who lie on TV, including Trump. That seems impractical with regard to Trump, but suggestion seems doable:

    If you’re doing TV, mute the sound output. Do a voice-over saying what the truth is. For example: “The president is discussing the Department of Justice investigation into former FBI director Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails. There is no connection between the inspector general’s examination of how Comey handled the emails and the Mueller investigation.”

    In other words, do what misinformation experts suggest: Don’t repeat the lie. Say what’s true….

    …Then, after it’s over, link to the unedited version of Trump’s lies so that people who want to hear exactly what he said can do so.

    The suggestion seems reasonable, but if an outlet decides to do this, I still think they need to make some special effort to defend this decision, and prove the following:

    Politicians have always told some lies. This is different. The people running our government, and their key supporters, have launched a war on honest journalism, on facts, and on freedom of expression in general. They are using misinformation as strategy. They want the public to become so confused by what is true and what is false that people will give up even on the idea that journalism can help sort things out. This is not business as usual.

    This is a huge claim, and the press has to make an incredibly persuasive case that this is the truth. Really, is the claim objective, a fact? I don’t think so, and this where things can get dicey. Still, I think they can make a very strong case for this, and it’s important that they do.

    By the way, I think part of this should include a discussion of journalistic standards and the importance of facts, fact-base discourse, and the presses’ responsibility in this.

    1. I haven’t examined the dictator lithmus test above, but if it’s sound, this could also be included in the decision tree and special report.

  2. I actually don’t think the situation is that simple. What exactly is a lie? This isn’t always clear cut and often requires a subjective judgment. Additionally, most, if not all politicians, lie, and politicians regularly attempt to create positive perceptions of themselves and their party, while attempting to put the opposing party in the most negative light. Lies may not always be involved, but distortions and bad faith often can be. I believe what Trump does is much different from typical, not-so-honest behavior from politicians, but that is a judgment call and that process isn’t as clear-cut as Jolly implies above.

  3. Someone recommended having someone fact-check the president in real time. I thought this would be better if you had a conservative and liberal working together to do the fact checking.

    But really, I think fact-checking problematic (and I won’t get into here).

    Here’s another approach (and I think I’ve written about this here), although this couldn’t be used for this specific announcement. My idea is for the networks and news outlets to get together to make a 30-60 minute special about Trump’s lies. The purpose would be to inform the public that Trump’s lies are qualitatively and quantitatively different from other presidents, the program would provide proof for this as well as suggest the ways the press will cover Trump as a result of this….Actually, it might be better to avoid this last part. Instead, they could lay out the challenges the press faces with covering someone like Trump. (Maybe they could ask the public for suggestions?)

    Get Shep Smith or Chris Wallace from Fox News to host the show with someone like Chuck Todd or maybe someone from CNN.

    This is the kind of thing I’d like to see first before live fact-checking of a White House presentation.

    Any ideas why this would not work, or why it’s not feasible?


    This is valid point, in my opinion.

    Well, this adds weight to Hennesey’s claim:

    It really does seem like he’s going on TV to scare people into building the wall. Calling this a “crisis” is one thing, but a “national security crisis” seems more dire–i.e., many lives will be lost or our country is facing an existential threat. This is so wrong. (Seems like another opportunity for good people in the administration, if there are any, to resign.)


    See this thread as an example.

    Sorry, I have a so much trouble believing this. How can they expect people to trust what she’s saying?


    This is a really good point.



    1. I understand what they’re saying, but I think they both can say this because they’re not the ones ultimately making the decision. If we apply Meyer’s logic, then the press need not cover major address or announcement made by the Trump (State of the Union, too?). Or they can really restrict Trump’s access to the public. Does that sound appropriate and acceptable? Other presidents have lied as well. Does that mean the press need not air their speeches and announcements as well? What will Trump supporters or even neutral observers think? How do you prevent people from thinking the press is out to get Trump? Again, I really sympathize with Meyers and Legum, but I feel like they’re not appreciating the dilemma the news executives face.

      Now, having said this, my sense is that a lot of journalists and politicians know that there really isn’t a “national security crisis” at the southern border, and that Trump is stoking fears to create political pressure to build a wall. So to give Trump air time to do just seems inappropriate and wrong as well. (This is reminding me of the way Trump sent troops to the border because of the immigrant caravan.)

      Perhaps the best answer is to allow him to make the announcement, but then provide evidence that indicates there is no national security crisis. Additionally, the press should bring up previous false claims, especially the outrageous ones (e.g., millions illegally voted for Clinton, inauguration crowd size bigger than Obama’s, etc.) Finally, in some way this has to affect the way the press covers Trump. They can’t keep covering him as if he has a long record of lying and making things up.


      Thought: What if news executives make airing of address conditional that the president not tell obvious lies of serious consequence–i.e., making baseless claim of national security crisis. And if Trump violates this, there will be consequences. (What those consequences are, I’m not sure.) But this agreement can be told to the public, so if Trump violates it, the networks will have some justification responding with some consequences. “You agreed to not make baseless claims, and you violated that, so….”

  4. Making my way through the Mueller Report more carefully and every incident of premeditated and strategic lying to the press as KT McFarland does with @IgnatiusPost makes me think we still haven’t adequately adjusted to the asymmetrical task of covering bald faced liars.— Nicolle Wallace (@NicolleDWallace) April 19, 2019

    These appearances now raise complex questions. Henceforth how does press treat Sarah Sanders? Does it rely on her less? Remind listeners/readers/viewers she is a proven dissembler every time we quote her? Or what?— Michael Barbaro (@mikiebarb) April 19, 2019

    I mean this feels heavy handed and has implications for the president as well but imagine a world in which every single press question began this way: “Sarah, despite your reputation for dishonesty, I’d like to ask you about…..”— Michael Barbaro (@mikiebarb) April 19, 2019

  5. Mini-rant: Move on from specific lies and focus on the credibility of person or organization

    The effort to point out the lies and misinformation by Trump and his surrogates has value, and normally I would applaud. However, I’ve grown impatient with this approach, feeling a sense of futility and frustration. Not only does this seem to have no effect–both on public opinion or changing the behavior of Trump and his surrogates–but I also think it could lead to confusion. If anti-Trumpers say, “white” and Trumpers say, “black,” this will likely confuse people, especially those that don’t follow the news.

    Here’s the other tack I have in mind: Start focusing on and evaluating the individual or organization–tracking their claims, evaluating the reasonableness of the claims, and seeing how often they’ve proven true. If certain individuals repeated lie and/or make outrageous claims, pointing out the subsequent lies seems less valuable than clearly showing the person is untrustworthy and even operates in bad faith.

    If the general public has a clearer idea of who the trustworthy, good faith actors are from the untrustworthy, bad faith actors, my sense is that this can help reduce the confusion. It also is a more efficient way to make sense of what to believe. Instead of focusing on specific claims or the facts of specific issues or incidents, the public can focus on the trustworthiness of the individual. They still should critically examine claims in general, but by dismissing claims made by those who have a long, proven track record of blatant falsehoods and bad faith behavior, this can help them get a better handle on political information.

  6. I want to write about how to deal with this problem–specifically, showing differences of degree in corruption or hypocrisies, lies, etc. Without doing this, there can be a tendency to think that all politicians are equally corrupt, hypocritical, dishonest, etc. Will try to write a solution later.

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