President Trump doesn’t change; neither do the reportorial challenges of covering him.
In light of Fox News’s decision to accord hours of live and unfiltered coverage of Trump’s recent rallies, the campaign-trail debate over how to cover an unrepentant and persistent liar has reemerged. As this blog wrote earlier this week, live television is a difficult medium in which to track and knock down all of the falsehoods spewed by this fellow: He moves too fast; his lies are too random.
Now “Morning Joe” has tried to prove that wrong. For more than a half-hour on Thursday morning, co-host (and Post contributing columnist) Joe Scarborough monitored Trump’s NATO news conference from Brussels. The hosts listened patiently to Trump’s utterances and broke in when Trump said something incorrect. Those break-ins were frequent, as it happened. Here’s a look at most of them:
- When Trump said that NATO member country contributions were headed down, Scarborough said: “Actually what the president just said there about all of the contributions going down is a lie. They continued to go up under Barack Obama, near the end of the Obama administration. … He was lying when he said that. Back to the president.”
- When Trump talked about getting countries to commit to 2 percent contributions, Scarborough jumped in: “Just one more clarification from what the president is saying, which is actually not connected to reality. All the countries have committed to 2 percent. … Now back to the president.”
- When Trump told a journalist, “I’m a very stable genius,” Scarborough said: “‘Very stable?’ Questionable. ‘Genius?’ We’ll just go back to the president.”
- When Trump bragged about what a “great meeting” the NATO members had “in terms of getting along,” Scarborough cut in, “That, actually, is false. Also, there are numerous quotes talking about how our allies are distressed by Donald Trump and the way he treats NATO allies.”
- When Trump prattled on about his NATO heroics, Scarborough interjected, “Just for viewers and listeners who are confused: Donald Trump continually suggests that individual military budgets from individual countries flow into NATO. They do not. There are two separate things: 2 percent for their defense budget, and then you have money that comes into NATO.”
- When Trump talked about the political success of hard-line immigration polices, Scarborough said, “The president has said he’s very popular and he’s liked in Britain. In fact, he has the lowest rating ever of any first-year president since the records have been taken. … Now back to the president.”
- When Trump said that Ronald Reagan didn’t win Wisconsin in 1984 — “when he ran the board” — Scarborough broke in: “The president, of course, wrong again. I don’t know how many times he can get this wrong. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 49 states, including Wisconsin. He only lost to Walter Mondale’s Minnesota. The president continuing to lie about basic election results, American results. Ronald Reagan, again, for the 15th time, White House staff: Ronald Reagan won Wisconsin in 1984. Richard Nixon won Wisconsin as well. You don’t have to go back to Dwight Eisenhower. Again, he once again lies about election results. Now back to the president’s press conference, already in progress.”
- And when Trump talked for the hundredth time about how he opposed the Iraq War, Scarborough said: “Obviously, as many of you know, the president, then Donald Trump, in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq War, took several positions on the Iraq War. One day he was for it, one day he was against it. Now back to the president.”
That last one is a great flash point in the debate over how to report on Trump. Many cautious news organizations have hesitated to call the president’s falsehoods “lies” because that word implies conscious deceit. During his presidential campaign, Trump hammered away at his so-called hard-line opposition to the Iraq War in early 2003, despite the public record demonstrating quotes to the contrary. In interviews, Trump was pressed on this dissonance — so he fully knows what he’s doing when he misleads about his pre-Iraq War position.
“Morning Joe” guest Lawrence O’Donnell, another MSNBC personality, praised Scarborough for his on-the-fly maneuver, saying that “the way you did it is the only way that makes any sense to me.” Scarborough himself stressed the importance of figuring out a way to do live fact-checking that doesn’t “interfere with the news that comes out of the press conference. … If he gets a 40-minute block, that’s how he succeeds. It’s one lie on top of another lie on top of another lie on top of another lie, and pretty soon it’s hard to untangle all those lies in a way that viewers and Trump supporters can digest.”
The mechanics are indeed important. As Scarborough broke into the news conference with his steady truth bombs, he essentially muted it — meaning that Trump could have sneaked in additional falsehoods during the fact-check. So perhaps a mixture of anchor break-ins with chyron adjustments and perhaps other graphics could provide an appropriately intrusive approach.
But who really knows? The importance of the “Morning Joe” venture, we hope, is that television news programs that provide unfiltered airtime to Trump in the future will face a tidy backlash for enabling falsehoods from the White House. Another consideration: The live fact-checking of the president brings the mendacity issue back into the fore of the public debate, where it belongs. For too long, commentators on television and elsewhere have discussed Trump’s “policies” as if he were a credible person; he is not, and every discussion of his approach to any given policy area should begin with an excavation of his false and misleading statements thereabout.
And a final note: Scarborough’s reference to tailoring the fact-checks for the digestion of “Trump supporters” is a curious one, considering that those folks flock to another cable-news channel with far less relish for real-time fact-checking. We asked that network if it would commit to doing so in the future and are awaiting a response.