Lewandowski’s behavior was contemptible — and made worse by his and Trump’s original, false assertions that there was no contact whatsoever and that the reporter, Michelle Fields, is a serial liar who made the whole thing up.
But as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough rightly pointed out Wednesday, a video of the incident also suggested that it wasn’t quite as violent as some media accounts made it out to be a few weeks ago.
"If you had been following reporters on Twitter, you literally would have thought that there were police batons, and she was beaten on the ground," Scarborough said on "Morning Joe." "It does not excuse victim-blaming. It does point to something I have been saying for some time, and that is the press hates Donald Trump so much that even in a story like this — which deserves covering — even in a story like this, there is absolutely no perspective. None, whatsoever."
Social media aside, Lewandowski was previously described by various publications as having attacked, manhandled or roughed up Fields, who was working for Trump-friendly Breitbart News at the time but has since left the publication. Those verbs are vague enough that one could still argue they apply, but it's also fair to say that the scene they conjured in the minds of many readers was probably more extreme than what the tape revealed Tuesday when police released it.
This is a problem that undermines the news media's credibility. When reports seem to be exaggerated — perhaps because of imprecise language — they open a crack that Trump can use to completely crumble them in the eyes of his supporters. Trump's new defense for Lewandowski's action (now that he can no longer pretend his campaign manager never touched Fields) is that accounts of the incident have been blown out of proportion.
"I mean, give me a break," he said to CNN's Anderson Cooper during a town hall event in Milwaukee on Tuesday night.
And many Republican voters will almost undoubtedly give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this. Because even though he and his campaign are in the wrong -- being caught in a clear lie -- some in the media did inflate the severity of Lewandowski's alleged battery.
We saw something similar in December when the media rushed to judgment on Trump's memorable use of the word "schlonged" to describe Hillary Clinton's 2008 Democratic presidential primary defeat. By making little to no allowance at the outset for the (admittedly remote) possibility of a non-dirty meaning, journalists ultimately strengthened the Republican front-runner's defense.
More regularly, we see the same flaw in broad claims that Trump began his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. Technically, he said that some, not all, illegal Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, and that the Mexican government is sending them across the border.
It was surely a derogatory remark that unfairly characterized a large group of people, but media outlets do Trump a favor every time they overstate the scope of this and other comments. Trump is great at exploiting plausible deniability in the things he says, and by extension, that can cause reporters to overreach in their characterization of exactly what he said.