In recent weeks, President Trump has suggested injecting disinfectant into coronavirus patients, has lodged a baseless theory that his predecessor engaged in a criminal coup against him, and now claims to be taking a unproven drug to prevent his own coronavirus infection — a drug that studies suggest could be dangerous and has not even proved effective for treating the virus.
And each time, the media’s coverage of these issues has drawn exasperation from media critics and Trump’s opponents.
The chief allegation is that the media is chasing shiny objects and skirting its responsibility to focus on The Real Issues. Some have even suggested that the best policy is to ignore what the president is saying, on grounds that covering it only validates his bizarre ruminations.
“It’s so obvious that it’s almost not worth pointing out, but Trump saying he’s taking hydroxychloroquine is one of his oldest media tactics,” said Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman in a representative tweet. “In this case, say something outrageous to hijack news cycle and distract from 90K dead Americans.”
“Who knows if the president is really taking hydroxychloroquine? But the media is definitely taking the bait,” a Politico column said. A Los Angeles Times headline declared: “Trump lashes out with distractions and disinformation.” “The media is helping Trump turn the bogus ‘Obamagate’ into the 2020 version of Clinton’s emails,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “The fake ‘Obamagate’ scandal shows how Trump hacks the media,” declared Vox.
But many of these theories are overly simplistic. Let’s run through a few of the regular criticisms of the media’s coverage of Trump.
To the extent Trump’s opponents give him credit, it’s often for propping up distractions for the media to chase as a diversion from things he wants to escape notice.
This has been a particularly prominent theory, but Trump’s Monday claim that he is taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent contracting the coronavirus is a case in point for many critics. The theory goes like this: Trump did this to make everyone neglect the brewing scandal over his retaliatory and politically motivated removals of a series of inspectors general or his broader coronavirus response. To the extent the media are focusing on the president allegedly taking the drug, the argument goes, they are not covering the obviously problematic firing of the inspector general who was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
This argument has always struck me as giving Trump too much credit. He’s thin-skinned and he’s impulsive, and there is myriad evidence to suggest that much of this is just Trump being Trump.
Much of the reporting about what happens behind the scenes at the White House reinforces that Trump is prone to flying off the handle and doing strange things. Often, these supposed distractions only point back in the direction of his liabilities. What better way to reinforce the uneven federal coronavirus response, after all, than for Trump to say he is personally taking an unproven drug in a way that reinforces his often-bizarre theories about the problem just going away? If that’s a distraction, maybe he would want to highlight something else.
That doesn’t mean Trump never intends to distract. But given the dogged coverage of the Russia investigation, the very skeptical coverage of his actions vis-a-vis Ukraine and the criticism of his response to the coronavirus, it’s difficult to say that these alleged distractions are truly well thought-out or effective. The idea that the media will suddenly forget about or move on from the inspector general firings and not dig into all of it is not borne out by precedent.
And then there are the real problems posed by Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine. People who believe in Trump may suddenly feel inclined to seek it out, given that the president they like seems to be putting his health where his mouth is. That could deprive people who use the drug for proven purposes.
There’s also the question of whether Trump is being honest about taking it, which Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) noted Monday in pushing back on the “distraction” allegation:
I don’t think it’s hilarious or trivial or a distraction. Look, he’s either taking a drug that he shouldn’t or he’s lying about it. In the middle of the worst pandemic in the 100 years. With 90 thousand dead. Everyone is too “savvy” nowadays. This is completely insane.
Then there’s the idea that covering such things only lends them credence. As Trump has pressed forward with baselessly accusing Barack Obama of crimes when it comes the Russia investigation — a scenario Trump has dubbed “Obamagate” — critics have suggested the best policy is just to ignore it or, at the least, decline to use Trump’s chosen word for it.
I sympathize more with the latter. One thing Trump is undeniably good at is simplifying his arguments, repeating his slogans religiously, and hoping that the labels he attaches to things take hold.
As for ignoring it, though? That utterly ignores our media reality today.
There was a time when the so-called “mainstream media” was the chief source of news for the vast majority of Americans — especially back in the pre-Internet, pre-social media days and when the three major broadcast networks were the only TV news.
Now though, we have an entire media ecosystem in which baseless conspiracy theories can spread like wildfire without ever appearing — however skeptically covered — in The Washington Post or the New York Times or on ABC, CBS or NBC. Many people get their news from dubious sources on Facebook, for example, without ever consulting a mainstream outlet. And the vast majority of Republicans rely on sources such as Fox News and others, which often credulously play up “Obamagate” as a legitimate scandal.
The Post’s Philip Bump highlighted that news-consumption difference here:
This is an understandable frustration. Trump has made more than 18,000 false or misleading claims as president, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker — a rate of more than 15 a day.
A long-standing criticism of the media is that it should call these things “lies” rather than “false or misleading claims.” But while there is little doubt that many of them amount to lies, that requires ascribing actual motive to saying things that are false. And that’s dicey territory for a journalist. How do you truly know that, in the case of any given claim, someone like Trump actually knows better?
And to me, that’s the key point. The call-it-a-lie pushback kind of misses the forest for the trees. And that point is this: Is it really better that a president might be so fundamentally unfamiliar with basic facts? That’s very arguably a bigger indictment of his presidency than anything else. Is being nefarious better than being devoid of any understanding of the kind of facts that any regular person — much less someone tasked with running this country — should grasp?
The fact is that there’s no good explanation for Trump’s thousands of falsehoods, and the idea that he’s lying might actually be the most favorable to him — as should, admittedly, probably be reinforced in coverage of them.
It’s easy to argue that the media has failed at covering Trump skeptically, given the resilience of Trump’s approval rating over the course of his presidency. But also keep in mind where that resiliency has been: Largely, in the low 40s, when it comes to Trump’s approval rating.
The first thing to note is that it’s not the mainstream media’s job to drive down anybody’s approval rating; their job is to report the facts and cover people in power skeptically — however Americans might actually respond to that coverage.
But the second thing to note is that the idea Trump has paid little or no price for coverage of his unwieldy presidency and falsehoods just isn’t borne out. Trump’s approval rating has been remarkably steady throughout his time in office, but it’s also been remarkably low relative to his predecessors. He also won in 2016 despite losing the popular vote and being the most unpopular elected president in modern history — in large part because his opponent was viewed in a similarly negative light.
People can argue about how Hillary Clinton was covered in that campaign, but that doesn’t change how coverage of Trump impacted him. And one area in which he has long struggled is when it comes to his honesty and trustworthiness.
That’s routinely been among his worst personal attributes in polls. And a recent survey by USA Today and Suffolk University reinforced how much this has penetrated — at least among those who don’t rely on the more Trump-friendly Fox for their news. Among people who said Fox wasn’t their most trusted source of news, just 15 percent said that Trump was honest and trustworthy. Fully 80 percent said he’s not.
Polls have shown that one-third of Americans or fewer believe “honest and trustworthy” applies to Trump — including many Trump supporters. And when you dig deeper, it’s even starker; an AP-NORC poll in October showed just 53 percent of Republicans said that “honest and trustworthy” described Trump “extremely” or “very” well.
That sure suggests people — including many Trump supporters — acknowledge that honesty and facts just aren’t Trump’s thing.
But that may not be the highest priority for many people whose ideology or other goals align with Trump and/or the modern Republican Party — which is perhaps understandable given the polarized environment in which we currently find ourselves. It may simply be a time in which 4 in 10 Americans will support whoever is speaking to their concerns and partisan predilections — and that they care significantly less about the details.
All of which is illustrative when it comes to the media’s coverage. The media should always be reconsidering how it covers modern politics and should hardly be immune to criticism. But offering these kinds of cure-alls often glosses over much of the evidence and current realities of our politics.
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