In another stunt designed to whip up his xenophobic base, President Trump threatened in an interview with Axios to repeal birthright citizenship, enshrined in the 14th Amendment (“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”) to the Constitution, falsely stating that we are the only country to have birthright citizenship.
That would be an appropriate way to start a report on Trump’s remarks. Unfortunately, Axios raced to post its report without first fact-checking the president. Its initial report restated his “plan” (as if he was presenting it and as if it was a serious policy move) and failed to rebut his false assertion that we are the only country with such a system. Indeed, Axios had introduced the topic, unprompted, and Trump — as he often does — was vaguely amenable. Axios then blasted out the headline as if this was a concrete plan. Other outlets followed, repeating Trump’s misstatement of fact.
The Axios article on the topic cited a Post op-ed by Trump ideologue Michael Anton, without mentioning a subsequent editor’s note:
Michael Anton inserted the bracketed word “[or]” into a statement made by Michigan Sen. Jacob Howard during debate of the 14th Amendment on May 30, 1866, as recorded in the Congressional Globe. Anton wrote that Howard “clarified that the amendment explicitly excludes from citizenship ‘persons born in the United States who are foreigners, aliens, [or] who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers.’ ” Writers before Anton have made the same insertion, and Anton stands by his interpretation of Howard’s statement and maintains that the insertion of the word clarified rather than altered its meaning. You can read his full explanation in a blog post subsequently published by the Claremont Review of Books. Others believe the inserted word changes rather than clarifies the meaning of the quotation. Because the quotation can be read a different way, we should have asked Anton to publish it unaltered and then explain his interpretation rather than publishing it with the inserted word.
On social media and elsewhere, journalists criticized Axios’s handling of the issue and quickly pointed out that birthright citizenship cannot be altered by executive order, nor is the United States alone in mandating birthright citizenship.
My colleague Glenn Kessler tweeted:
Hey @AP_Politics why do you feature a completely false — and easily checkable Trump quote — in a tweet? 33 countries allow it, including Mexico and Canada. You should delete this. https://t.co/5Cb2B89bAj— Glenn Kessler (@GlennKesslerWP) October 30, 2018
This is one example of the symbiotic relationship between Trump and headline-hungry media. What is notable about this episode is not that this is a “scoop” on what Trump planned, but that in the closing days of the midterm campaign, he is desperate to stir up his base — just as he has been doing in hyping the caravan, which remains hundreds of miles from our border.
Speaking of the caravan, one expects Fox News to exaggerate and outright misrepresent the situation (e.g. suggesting the migrants carry diseases, have been infiltrated by Middle Easterners, financed by Jewish billionaire George Soros), but the mainstream media is not blameless in helping Trump perpetrate his phony crisis. In an unusual move, the progressive Center for American Progress put out a memo chiding media outlets. After reciting the numerous inaccuracies in Trump’s remarks, CAP advised:
Coverage of these lies and misinformation on the caravan carry significant consequences. As the Washington Post reported, “The Soros-caravan conspiracy theory weaves together anti-Semitism, fear of immigrants and the specter of powerful foreign agents controlling major world events in pursuit of a hidden agenda. And it appears to have had real-world consequences on Saturday for Jews attending services, including a baby-naming ceremony, in their synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.” …The definition of propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.The White House and its advisors have openly stated they are using the caravan for political purposes. . . . It is incumbent on all of us to know and call out when our leaders are pushing propaganda for their own callous, political gain. And we rely on — and call on — a free and independent media to not give propaganda a pass. The caravan should no longer be treated as a major news story — as was done last week — and it would only embolden this president’s lies to do so. Any mainstream outlet that covers this caravan devoid of the basic facts nowhere near the border and is mainly comprised of women and children is aiding President Trump’s political agenda and contributing to a climate of xenophobia and intolerance.
Each news outlet must decide which stories are most important. In this case, coverage has too often simply repeated the Trump-Fox hype rather than explain what is going on: Trump is creating a fake emergency, wasting taxpayer dollars now in deploying troops and serving it up as red meat to his base.
Covering Trump is no easy task. All of us need to do better.