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Opinion Memo to the media: Stop giving Trump the headlines he wants

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump is once again claiming credit for beating back the scourge of outsourcing, this time insisting that he is the reason that Sprint has announced plans to move thousands of jobs back to America from other countries.

“Because of what’s happening, and the spirit and the hope, I was just called by the head people at Sprint, and they are going to be bringing 5,000 jobs back to the United States,” Trump said, adding that the news of jobs “coming back into the United States” marks “a nice change.” Trump later added that the jobs were coming back “because of me.”

But based on what we know right now, it is not at all clear what role Trump — or whatever “spirit” of “hope” his victory has created — had in bringing these jobs back to the U.S.

The good that could come from a Trump presidency

Yet here are some of the headlines that greeted Trump’s claim:

CNN: “Trump declares victory: Sprint will create 5,000 U.S. jobs.”

The New York Times: “Trump Takes Credit for Sprint Plan to Add 5,000 Jobs in U.S.”

* USA Today: “8,000 U.S. jobs? Trump takes credit for Sprint, start-up decisions.”

* ABC News: “Trump claims Sprint to create 5,000 jobs ‘because of me’.”

* The Associated Press: “Trump takes credit for 8,000 jobs from Japanese mogul.”

* The Washington Post: “Trump touts thousands of new jobs in deal with Softbank CEO.”

To be sure, you could find the facts of the situation buried in the body of these stories. (Some of these headlines refer to 8,000 jobs, rather than 5,000, because of an additional 3,000 jobs that Trump announced.) But the 5,000 jobs seem to have been previously decided, and the broader plans of which they are a part seem to have predated the election. As the Times write-up explained:

Sprint later said that the jobs were part of a previously announced commitment by Japan’s SoftBank, which owns a controlling stake in the mobile phone carrier, to invest $50 billion in the United States and create 50,000 positions. That announcement, made by Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of SoftBank, followed a meeting with Mr. Trump this month.
SoftBank is also a major investor in OneWeb, a satellite start-up that Mr. Trump said Wednesday would create an additional 3,000 jobs in the United States.

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Trump previously met with Son in early December, after which Son announced this $50 billion investment in the United States. Trump took credit for that at the time, too. But if you click through to the linked story about SoftBank’s announcement at that time, you learn this:

The $50 billion investment pledge is not an entirely new initiative that SoftBank is undertaking. Instead, the money is projected to come from the Japanese company’s previously announced Vision fund, a $100 billion vehicle for investing in technology companies worldwide.
The fund — which includes Saudi Arabia, a target of Mr. Trump’s ire during the presidential campaign, as a key partner — was always expected to strike a significant portion of its deals in the United States.

Now, in fairness to Trump, we don’t really know whether he did or did not play some kind of role in ensuring that these “expected” deals in the U.S. will now actually happen. Maybe he did.

But that’s exactly the point: We do not yet know whether he played any role or, if he did, what that role might have entailed. Indeed, it’s perfectly plausible that he may not have played any role at all, or if he did, that it might have been largely incidental. Which is to say that we have no way of knowing whether the Trump claim reflected in all of these headlines — that he does deserve credit for this happening — is true or not.

Some headlines did manage to convey this basic underlying problem. Politico noted in its headline that Trump was touting “previously announced” jobs. Bloomberg was even better, stating flatly in its headline: “Trump seeks credit for 5,000 Sprint jobs already touted.”

A suggested rule of thumb

I would like to propose a rule of thumb for these situations: If the headline does not convey the fact that Trump’s claim is in question or open to doubt, based on the known facts, then it is insufficiently informative. The Bloomberg headline does accomplish this. If the headline merely conveys that Trump claimed credit for something, without also conveying that this is open to doubt, then it risks being misleading, particularly since people often scan headlines without digging deeper into the stories and the factual details.

Why is this a risk any news org would choose to take, when it doesn’t have to? Look, it’s obvious that Trump has adopted a strategy of actively trying to game such headlines in his favor. Trump’s claims about Carrier jobs staying in Indiana turned out to be significantly less rosy upon closer inspection. And remember when Trump falsely claimed credit for keeping a Ford plant here that was going to stay anyway? It really doesn’t take much to convey it in a headline when Trump’s claim is in doubt.

What’s more, all this is exacerbated by another problem here: It may be in the interests of the companies in question to play along with the story that Trump is telling. When Trump falsely takes credit for a company’s decision to keep or move jobs here, why would that company want to set the record straight, when so doing could incur the wrath of the new administration, and when allowing Trump’s self-serving tale to stand could conceivably lead the new administration to view it favorably? The full story will be even harder to come by in these situations — making it more important that headlines inform readers and viewers when Trump’s claim is unverified or suspect.

Pretty much everyone already accepts that Trump’s nonstop lies and embellishment pose an unprecedented challenge to the news media. What’s more, we’ve already seen news orgs actively adjust their editorial approaches to cope with it. When the New York Times famously broke with precedent and called Trump’s birtherism a “lie” in a front page headline, executive editor Dean Baquet explained that this was necessary because Trump was going beyond the “normal sort of obfuscation that politicians traffic in.” In other words, Trump is forging new frontiers of dishonesty, and news organizations must adjust accordingly.

Now that it’s obvious that President Trump will strategically employ exaggerated announcements of “saved” jobs to rig the headlines in his favor, maybe it’s time to rethink how to handle that, too.


UPDATE: This should go without saying, but I’d like to add one additional point to my proposed rule of thumb for Trump headlines: If the known facts show that his claims are false or outright lies, the headline should clearly indicate that, too.