Democracy Dies in Darkness

Style | Perspective

USA Today gave Trump ‘leeway’ for his opinion. Instead, he deceived in almost every line.

October 11, 2018 at 6:00 AM

President Trump speaks at a Make America Great Again rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Oct. 8. (Nati Harnik/AP)

If there are any lingering questions about President Trump’s relationship with the news media, they should have been answered this week.

Appallingly but predictably, Trump for many days failed to express outrage or vow to take tough action after a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, reportedly was brutally killed in Turkey at the Saudi consulate. The Saudi journalist, a U.S. resident, was often critical of the Saudi government under de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As a Post editorial aptly put it, the apparent atrocity may reflect the influence of Trump, who has encouraged the crown prince to believe “that even his most lawless ventures will have the support of the United States.”

And again appallingly but predictably, Trump published a falsehood-riddled article in USA Today about “Medicare-for-all.’’

Glenn Kessler of The Post deconstructed Trump’s op-ed, writing that “almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.”

The president, he wrote, “chose to ignore the facts in service of a campaign-style op-ed.”

And USA Today let him get away with it.

Taken together, the two incidents — although far from equal in import — once again make it clear that Trump uses the media whenever he can to promote himself, but sees no reason to stand up for its societal role: to question authority and hold government accountable.

If there’s any surprise here, it has nothing to do with the president who never lets the facts disrupt political expediency. Any one of his raucous rallies proves that point dozens of times in a few hours.

The surprise is that USA Today — a reputable news organization that normally upholds standards for accuracy — allowed it.

After Trump’s piece created a backlash, the paper’s editorial page editor, Bill Sternberg, offered an unsatisfactory and puzzling explanation.

“We see ourselves as America’s conversation center, presenting our readers with voices from the right, left and middle,” Sternberg said in a statement.

“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.”

The statement is nonsensical, because adherence to facts has no right, left or middle.

It’s simply not the case, for example, that Trump kept his campaign promise to defend protections for people with preexisting medical conditions.

As a New York Times fact check put it: “The Justice Department told a federal court in June that it would no longer defend provisions in the Affordable Care Act that protect patients with pre-existing medical conditions.”

Kessler’s piece said the same: “Trump made this promise, but broke it. He supported Republican plans that would have weakened protections for individuals with preexisting conditions. His administration also has refused to defend the Affordable Care Act against a lawsuit that would undermine those protections.”

The opinion editors at USA Today seem to have forgotten the axiom popularized by Daniel Patrick Moynihan: You’re allowed to have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts.

They claimed to have fact-checked Trump (and the piece, oddly, includes links to articles, including by Kessler, that dispute the president’s own assertions). But they didn’t, apparently, pay much attention to what they must have found.

Telling as they are, these two incidents are not at all similar in importance.

The USA Today gaffe is merely embarrassing — though it should be deeply so — to the paper.

The president’s lying itself is almost beneath notice at this point, although it remains important to point it out.

Trump’s reaction to Khashoggi’s reported murder is in a far different category: It’s an abdication of his responsibility as president.

Khashoggi’s death is outrageous, as Post Publisher Fred Ryan has said, describing it as an apparent case of “state-sponsored, coldblooded murder.”

“Silence, denials and delays are not acceptable,” Ryan said in a statement. “We demand to know the truth.”

Trump should be every bit as forceful, and prepared to put presidential weight behind the words.

But he can’t be bothered with the truth — or, for that matter, protecting free expression.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan


Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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