Will it be effective even now that he is under siege for what looks like a blatant abuse of power to go after a political rival?
The Washington Post broke the story last week of a government whistleblower sounding the alarm about an action of Trump’s: a phone call pressing the president of Ukraine, from which Trump is withholding aid, to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s political rival, who held a company board position there.
Trump is counting on the media — both right-wing and mainstream — to do much of the work for him as he tries to manage another crisis.
And many are falling right in line.
Fox News, of course, is the easy part. On Monday night, both Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity blasted the blame-shifting into overdrive.
Rather than treat seriously the developing news story — designated Fox truth-teller Shep Smith had done that earlier — both hosts did a U-turn and went flying down the propaganda highway.
They made it all about Joe Biden’s supposed corruption, thus broadcasting their prime-time shows from the other side of Alice’s looking glass.
Here, for example, was the repeated chyron for Carlson’s Ukraine segment: “Biden and Son Accused of Misconduct in Ukraine.”
Who was doing this accusing? Why, Trump himself, of course. The Ukranians haven’t charged Biden or his son with any wrongdoing.
Trump couldn’t have scripted these TV segments more effectively himself. And given the tightly woven relationship between Fox News and the president, that’s fully possible.
Another Murdoch media property — the Wall Street Journal — admirably played it straight in a clear, explanatory article: Trump and his legal attack dog, Rudy Giuliani, “have suggested that Joe Biden pushed for the firing of Ukraine’s general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, in March 2016 to stop an investigation” into a company where Hunter Biden was a board member.
The Journal, which has broken some of the Trump-Ukraine news, cleared that up: “In Ukraine, government officials and anticorruption advocates say that is a misrepresentation.”
Biden was the point man for the many Western entities, including other lenders to Ukraine, who wanted Shokin out because he was too slow to go after the country’s bureaucratic corruption.
Those are the facts, but Trump is doing his well-honed best to obscure them.
Plenty of mainstream outlets are letting him do it.
Just one example of many: The Ukraine story was near the top of NBC’s “Nightly News” on Monday, with the reporting focused largely on the political fallout in the presidential campaign.
The network featured video and audio clips of Trump aggressively spouting off: “What Biden did was a disgrace.”
Without sufficient context, the piece also included an apparently irresistible sound bite as Trump concluded a media availability with the Polish president:
If a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, the national audience heard Trump asserting, “they’d be getting the electric chair by right now.”
NBC emphasized Biden’s pushback, too, but it ended up fairly even-steven — exactly the kind of thing that prompted James Fallows of the Atlantic to write a searing piece this week: “The Press is Embracing False Equivalence — Again.”
He doesn’t think the mainstream media has learned much, if anything, after the disastrous coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign that managed to equate Hillary Clinton’s email practices with Trump’s far more serious flaws: financial malfeasance, racism and alleged sexual misconduct.
And the usual paradox is in play: Even as journalists do Trump’s bidding — docilely accepting his role as their de facto assignment editor — he trashes them.
“The fake news doesn’t want to report it,” he said of his Biden-Ukraine angle, “because they’re Democrats.” A lot of reporters, he went on to say during the media availability Monday, are “crooked as hell.”
The damage is real, wrote Media Matters’ Matthew Gertz: “If journalists incorporate Trump’s debunked allegations into the narrative of Biden’s campaign, it will likely create a false impression of corruption.”
Granted, most news stories that focus on Trump’s counterpunching have included a sentence or two about the meritlessness of his corruption claims against Biden.
But it comes too little and too late.
These disclaimers don’t make their way into Biden-focused headlines, which is as far as many news consumers get.
This kind of story framing has been called “privileging the lie” — a longtime media cancer that has metastasized because Trump is such a relentless manipulator and master of reductionist politics: I’m not corrupt; he is.
Instead of snuffing out false and misleading claims, news stories give them oxygen. Then pundits come along to fan the flames — while simultaneously bemoaning what’s happened to our democratic norms.
That’s what Trump is counting on.
And why shouldn’t he? It’s worked for him every time.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan