The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump wants the networks to carry his speech live. They should look at these charts of his lies.

President Trump at the White House on Sunday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Trump just announced that he’s giving a speech on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on “the Humanitarian and National Security crisis on our Southern Border.” Various reporters inform us that the networks are deciding whether to carry it live.

The announcement itself — with its absurd hyping of the notion of a “national security crisis” at the border — leaves no doubt whatsoever about the level of agitprop deception Trump intends to employ. So the networks cannot pretend to be under any illusions about his intentions.

But in case they still are still under any such illusions, these two charts should put them to rest.

As luck would have it, The Post fact-checking team’s database charts out Trump’s lies and misleading statements by topic and by date. Here’s what Trump’s falsehoods and distortions on immigration in particular look like when broken down month by month:

As you can see, Trump’s dishonesty about immigration has escalated throughout his presidency. And at moments of political difficulty over the issue, the lies and distortions have reached staggering heights: Amid the family separations crisis, those numbers topped an average of well over 100 per month. And in the run-up to the midterms — when Trump made his demagoguery about migrants, asylum seekers and the border central to the GOP’s campaign message -- those numbers topped 200.

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A similar dynamic is visible when the lies and distortions about immigration are broken out by day:

In this case, amid the family separations crisis, the lies and distortions at times climbed higher than 20 per day, and in the run-up to the midterms, they rose at times to well over 30 per day. This chart also shows that, after the falsehoods and misleading statements dropped off after the election, they have spiked again heading into the government shutdown fight — another example of Trump facing a very challenging political moment involving immigration — which is where we are now.

The networks cannot feign innocence about the near-certainty that Trump is going to use this speech to lie relentlessly about immigration and the border. It is now a mostly accepted fact among many journalists and producers that Trump’s use of disinformation, as distinct from conventional political lying — in particular, his endless repetition of lies and distortions after they have been debunked — has combined with his relentless attacks on the media’s legitimacy into something that poses special challenges to the institutional role of the press. This did not achieve sufficient acceptance during the 2016 campaign. (I tell this broader story in my new book.)

As the government shutdown continues, the Trump administration has been using misleading immigration numbers to make a case for the wall. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

In a sense, this decision by the networks is perhaps best seen as a preview of whether the news media will reevaluate its treatment of Trump as we head into the 2020 campaigns. In an important Twitter thread, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen makes a good case that the big news organizations and media professionals urgently need to overhaul their approach to campaign journalism from the bottom up. This requires a recognition of the unique challenges that Trump’s innovations — full-saturation disinformation with the deliberate end of corrupting our political discourse and democracy — pose in the context of their imperative of maintaining a posture of objectivity and neutrality, which Rosen dubs the “production of innocence”:

By leading a hate campaign against the press, by emerging as the most potent source of misinformation in the culture, and by attacking the other institutions of American democracy in asymmetrical fashion, Trump has played havoc with the production of innocence in journalism.
Along with the reality of one-party control in Washington after the 2016 election, Trump's war on institutional democracy — and his attack on the very possibility of a fact-based debate — made it impossible for journalists to stay in the safety zone between opposing sides. 
That picture didn't fit. They had to push back, even as their companies saw a surge in revenue from greater attention to politics and shock at the sheer awfulness of the Trump phenomenon. The production of innocence ground to a halt. Trump vs the press became a daily reality. … 
The case for taking the side of democracy against its undermining by Trump is as strong as ever in journalism. Maybe stronger, as he begins to melt down under pressure.

It’s not really clear to me whether the recognition of the need for such an overhaul must entail the networks refusing to air the speech. Perhaps some form of prominent, aggressive and real-time fact checking could do the trick. But no one should pretend to be unaware that simply airing the speech will be tantamount to giving Trump a platform to spew what will certainly amount to dozens of unfiltered lies into the political bloodstream, which would send a truly awful signal of what we can look forward to heading into 2020.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s lies and disinformation require a new kind of media response

Jennifer Rubin: The media should stop playing along with Trump’s threat to ‘close the border’

The Post’s View: Trump’s shutdown has paralyzed immigration courts. Oh, the irony.

Lamar Alexander: Trump could reopen the government and build a lasting legacy all at once