MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow touched off an interesting social media debate when she suggested that because her obligation is to tell her viewers the truth, she tries not to quote President Trump. “Because I generally feel like I can’t trust what purports to be information from this president, I just try to do the news without words from him, most of the time.”
Ah, to live in a world without listening to Trump’s voice or reading his blatant, infuriating lies! But how do news outlets fairly tell viewers and readers what Trump is lying about if they don’t tell them about the lies?
The problem, I would suggest, is the way Trump’s lies are presented. The most mind-numbing version of this consists of repeating the lie, with the addition “Trump says.” For example: “North Korean leader is smart and handsome, Trump says.” Now that’s a fictional example (I hope), but it’s not helpful insofar it does not explain why that pronouncement is newsworthy: not because Kim Jong Un really is smart and handsome, but because Trump is trying to spin the world by elevating a murderous tyrant and whitewashing crimes against humanity. What’s important is Trump revealing himself to either be a liar or deluded — which doesn’t require quoting the president. The better headline would be, “Trump heaps praise on notorious dictator.”
My colleague Philip Bump aptly makes this point, citing this headline from the Hill: “Trump: ‘There is No Longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea’ ”:
So while 4 percent of the country goes on Twitter to read Trump’s tweets, 75 percent of the country ends up hearing about them. How? From the Hill, as above, or from The Washington Post, which included a moderated version of Trump’s claim in our headline.
That headline matters. . . . Most Americans don’t follow Trump on Twitter but come across his tweets on a regular basis. Many, if not most, Americans also rely heavily on headlines to convey news to them. Meaning that many Americans learn about what Trump says in his tweets through the summaries that appear in headlines.
Trump defenders will ask, “Why put your own commentary into a headline? Just let the readers figure it out.” The answer is threefold.
First, knowing that so many people read the headline, we in the media have an obligation to make sure it succinctly and precisely gets the point across. We shouldn’t be administering a reading comprehension test to readers; we should be informing them, as Maddow says, of what is actually going on. What is actually going on in the case of North Korea is that Trump is saying blatantly untrue, gobsmacking things — and we don’t know if he actually believes it. The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, told CNN’s Brian Stelter last year, “We’re not stenographers, we’re not supposed to write down what someone says. We’re actually supposed to find out what really happened, and it’s not just what people say, it’s what they do. So that’s what we’re endeavoring to do.”
Second, in the body of the report we have to quote his exact words. (Sorry, Maddow.) The public does need to know specifically what he said — not just paraphrasing. For the media to earn more trust, news consumers need to see the primary sources to complete an accurate, contextualized account of what is going on.
Third, this president does need to be treated differently. Because he lies so frequently (and so obviously) — more than 3,200 times already while in office — the media has a greater obligation to explain what he is saying, what is false (or occasionally, true), how we know it is false (e.g. North Korea still has its nukes and hasn’t even given a promise to get rid of them all) and why it matters. It is not unreasonable to take the position that the presumption of good faith extended to other White Houses must be tempered, if not dismissed altogether.
This brings us to the most maddening Trump lie: “There is no collusion.” To begin with, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is not investigation “collusion” — which isn’t even a “thing,” legally speaking. Each time he insists “no collusion” took place, it is incumbent on the media to explain that is NOT what Mueller is charged with investigating. Strictly speaking, Mueller is looking at whether there were “any links and/or coordination” between people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government. He has already found dozens: the Trump Tower meeting, Carter Page’s speech in Moscow (and previous attempts by Russians to cultivate him), Roger Stone’s alleged outreach to WikiLeaks, etc. The Moscow Project has found 80 contacts and at least 23 meetings between Trump associates and Russia-linked associates during the campaign and transition.
When Trump says that the special counsel has found nothing or that the Russia investigation is a hoax, it is incumbent on the media to explain, “Trump misrepresents Mueller’s progress” or “Trump’s denial ignores dozens of contacts with Russians.” The media should also remind viewers and readers that Mueller has already indicted 20 individuals and obtained five plea deals. In short, Trump’s lies have to be quoted, but the news media can do a better job providing the accurate context for those lies and refraining from being a Trump mouthpiece. And every headline has to be a self-contained nugget of truth, however hard that is to accomplish.