Speaking to the U.S. Central Command on Monday, President Trump went off his prepared remarks to make a truly stunning claim: The media was intentionally covering up reports of terrorist attacks.
The comment immediately harked back to comments from senior adviser Kellyanne Conway on MSNBC last week.
“I bet it’s brand-new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre,” she said. “Most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered.”
It was brand-new information to people because there was no “Bowling Green massacre.” Conway had referred to the supposed terrorist attack previously, including in response to a question posed by TMZ. But the two Iraqis arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., in 2011 never committed an attack in the United States. She later admitted that she’d misspoken.
Trump’s comment goes far further than Conway’s, though. Her statement that “it didn’t get covered” probably referred to the alleged “six-month ban” from the Obama administration. (That this, too, didn’t happen has been somewhat swept under the rug.) Trump is positing that the media actively suppresses news of terrorist attacks to fulfill a political agenda.
It’s certainly true that not every terrorist attack receives broad coverage in the national media. FiveThirtyEight looked at the likelihood that a terrorist attack in a foreign country would be covered by the New York Times, looking at coverage of 40,129 attacks from 1968 to 2009. Not every attack received coverage over that period. Last spring, the Los Angeles Times set out to log every single terrorist attack in the month of April, counting 180 attacks that killed 858 people. Not every one of those attacks made your local nightly newscast.
But filtering what to cover is very different than suppressing information. On any given day, local newspapers and news broadcasts decide what to spend resources on. If your home is burglarized, it may not make the cut. This probably isn’t because the Channel 5 news director has a vendetta against you; it’s that there are limited resources.
Trump’s comment is very much in line with comments he made last June about President Barack Obama.
“Look guys, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart or has something else in mind,” Trump said about Obama’s response to the attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando. “And the something else in mind — people can’t believe it. People cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There’s something going on.”
The clear implication: Obama is on the side of the terrorists. Trump didn’t quite say that the media was siding with the terrorists, just that the media would happily ignore terrorism if it made Trump look bad.
Interestingly, Trump himself ignored the mass shooting that occurred at a mosque in Quebec last week, killing six people. White House press secretary Sean Spicer told the media that the president and the Canadian prime minister had spoken, but Trump himself declined to weigh in. (Spicer cited the attack mostly as somehow validating Trump’s immigration policies.)
Trump did tweet about another attack.
In that one, no one was killed.
Trump has consistently seen attacks like that in Quebec — committed by a young man who espoused anti-Muslim politics and defended Trump online — as isolated incidents from mentally disturbed individuals, while attacks by Muslims are part of a broader pattern spurred by radical Islamism. He sees an institution behind attacks by Muslims that he doesn’t see behind attacks like that in Quebec or in Charleston in 2015. That helps explain why he is willing to focus the country’s anti-terrorism efforts solely on terrorism committed in the name of Islam: He doesn’t see how other threats are systemic.
With his comments on Monday, Trump implied that the media is complicit in making terrorists successful. It’s part of a recent pattern of suggesting that others are standing in the way of his terrorism-fighting efforts, which includes disparaging a federal judge who halted his immigration executive order.
Conway’s comments about Bowling Green earned her an enormous amount of public mockery — an undue amount, given the likelihood that her comments were a mistake rather than an intentional lie. Trump’s comments are of an entirely different order and magnitude.
Trump’s relationship with the media has never been strong during his time in politics. But he’s never before tried to push the media into the “against us” circle alongside those who commit acts of terrorism — at least, not so explicitly.
We don’t anticipate that, like Conway, he’ll admit to having misspoken.
Update: In a press availability on Air Force One, Spicer tried to soften Trump’s comment. Terror attacks had been “under reported,” not “unreported.” He continued, according to the pool report:
“He felt members of the media don’t always cover some of those events to the extent that other events might get covered. Protests will get blown out of the water, and yet an attack or a foiled attack doesn’t necessarily get the same coverage. He’s doing what he can to protect this nation and protect our people. And that’s why I think sometimes the polls don’t reflect what you see on the media. You see a wide degree of support for the president’s policies to protect this country, to create jobs, to grow the economy. And yet a lot of those stories and success that he’s had – in a mere two and a half weeks in office – aren’t exactly covered to the degree to which they should be.”
Spicer said the White House would at some point release examples of this “under reporting.”
Update: The list is out, according to CNN. It does not seem to fit Trump’s original description.