As we’ve already seen, Donald Trump is impressively skilled at throwing out just enough chum, via a few stray remarks to reporters or via an errant tweet, to garner himself precisely the headlines he wants. The most recent example of this came when he claimed credit last week for Sprint’s decision to bring back 5,000 jobs to the United States. Multiple headlines reflected his claim of credit for himself, without making it clear that the known facts left this claim very much in doubt.
Today brought another barrage of headlines from news organizations that told a new story exactly as Trump wants it told. Only in a twist, in this case, he did not even claim credit for the event in question. Yet multiple headlines left the strong impression that he deserved credit for it, while simultaneously misrepresenting his actual position on the underlying dispute.
Which means it’s time for your humble blogger to suggest another rule of thumb for surviving the headline writing business in the Trump Era.
A little while ago, House Republicans reversed course on their plan to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, after a loud outcry from critics and the public. Trump tweeted about this plan today before Republicans made their decision. Here are some of the headlines and tweets that resulted:
* CNN: “House Republicans pull plan to gut independent ethics committee after Trump tweets.”
* The Washington Post: “House Republicans back off gutting ethics watchdog after backlash from Trump.”
* Politico: “Trump tweets disapproval of GOP move to gut congressional ethics office.”
* Bloomberg: “House GOP reverses on ethics change after Trump criticism.”
* Business Insider: “House GOP reverses course on gutting ethics office after Trump takes a whack at them.”
* NPR: “After backlash, including from Trump, House GOP drops weakening of ethics office.”
* The New York Times’ main account tweeted: “House Republicans reversed their plan to gut an ethics office, after intense criticism from Donald Trump and others.”
* The CNN story claimed that Trump “dramatically strong-armed House Republicans into line.”
All of these strongly imply or state outright that Trump criticized House Republicans for the act of gutting the ethics office, or strongly imply that, in reversing course, they were bringing themselves into line with what Trump wanted on the substance of this dispute. But that’s not what happened. Here’s what Trump tweeted:
The careful reader will note that Trump actually described the current ethics arrangement as “unfair” — signaling support for criticism of it — and then only questioned House Republicans’ decision to make reversing it their first priority. He questioned not the act of gutting the office, but rather the timing of it.
Indeed, subsequently, a Trump spokesperson confirmed this reading, according to Huffington Post reporter Jennifer Bendery. “It’s not a question of strengthening or weakening,” the spokesman, Sean Spicer, said, “it’s a question of priorities.”
Now, many of the above headlines were narrowly accurate in the sense that the House GOP decision to reverse course did come after Trump’s tweet, chronologically speaking. And it’s certainly possible that House Republicans reversed course in part because of Trump’s criticism of their timing.
But nonetheless, these headlines and tweets create a highly misleading impression. Any casual reader would come away from them convinced that Trump had taken a position in the underlying dispute that is counter to that of House Republicans who sought to gut the office — that he had criticized Republicans for the act of weakening ethics oversight.
But that just did not happen. Trump spokesman Spicer confirmed that as clearly as you could want: “It’s not a question of strengthening or weakening.”
Last week, I hectored you with my idea for a proposed rule of thumb for headline writing, one that would allow us to avoid the pitfall of allowing Trump to claim credit for things without alerting readers that his claim is open to doubt or dubious.
Today, I’d like to ask for your indulgence as I propose another rule of thumb: If a casual reader would come away from your headline persuaded that Trump has adopted a clear stand that he hasn’t really adopted, then the headline is misleading and something is wrong. The threshold question here should be what impression a headline would leave with a reader who is skimming it. If it risks leaving a misleading impression, then it risks misinforming people. Trump often takes extremely slippery positions, making it more important to exercise care to avoid this.
In this particular case, this is not a narrow, nitpicky criticism. It’s central to understanding the situation. Trump did not criticize the act of weakening ethics oversight, so for that reason alone, the implication that he struck a blow for the cause of good government is itself deeply misleading, particularly at a time when Trump is under intense fire for failing to take his own conflicts of interest seriously. What’s more, it would have been a lot harder for Trump to take the tough stand that these headlines ascribe to him, because if he did, he would be seemingly criticizing Republicans for trying to weaken ethics oversight on themselves. That’s a much more serious charge — and one much more unflattering to Republicans — than what Trump actually did say.