This is how CNN’s State of the Union began on Sunday:
JAKE TAPPER: Hello. I’m Jake Tapper in Washington, where the state of our union is appalled. We begin this morning with a retweet from the president of the United States, not a message about healing or uniting the country one week after two horrifying massacres, not about the victims of those tragedies.
Instead, President Trump using his massive Twitter platform, 63 million followers, to spread a deranged conspiracy theory, tying the death of pedophile Jeffrey Epstein in prison to the president's former political rivals the Clintons.
I’m not going to show you the tweet, but the spokesperson for former president Bill Clinton responded to the president retweeting it, saying — quote — “Ridiculous and, of course, not true, and Donald Trump knows it. Has he triggered the 25th Amendment yet?” . . .
President Trump has also given voice to the lie that the migrant and refugee crisis at the southern border of the U.S. is a plot by Jewish billionaire George Soros to fund a — quote — “invasion.”
That is a conspiracy theory that was the motive for mass slaughter in Pittsburgh and El Paso.
This is no longer just irresponsible and indecent. It is dangerous.
Joining me now from his hometown of El Paso, after having canceled his campaign events for the week to deal with the mourning citizens in his city, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. . .
What was your reaction when you saw the tweets?
BETO O’ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is another example of our president using this position of public trust to attack his political enemies with unfounded conspiracy theories, and also to try to force you and me and all of us to focus on his bizarre behavior, instead of the fact that we just lost 22 people in this community, nine people in Dayton, Ohio; we’re seeing an epidemic of gun violence every single day in this country. . .
He’s changing the conversation. And if we allow him to do that, then we will never be able to focus on the true problems, of which he is a part, and make sure that we get to the solutions, now, whether that means legislation that keeps guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have it.
Credit Tapper with not allowing Trump to use his show as a megaphone for Trump’s insane conspiracy-mongering and reminding viewers that the president feeds conspiracy theories all the time, some of which are the source of inspiration or reaffirmation for violent extremists.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) appeared later in the show. When asked about Trump’s Jeffrey Epstein tweet, Booker responded, “You know, this is just more recklessness. What he’s doing is dangerous.” Booker continued: “He’s giving life to not just conspiracy theories, but really whipping people up into anger and worse against different people in this country. And so this is a tired way that the president does. He’s been using the Clintons as a means for a lot of his false accusations.” Booker reminded us that the Pizzagate conspiracy was another violence-inducing episode. “We see people’s lives being threatened because this president whips up hatred. This is a very dangerous president that we have right now, trying to divide us against each other and really using the same tactics and the same language, not just of white supremacists, but also using the same tactics and languages of the Russians, if you look at the intelligence reports about how they’re coming at our democracy.”
O’Rourke and Booker both made the key points that any responsible official should make. There is a simple formula for responding to these episodes: 1) Reaffirm that they are baseless, crazy theories; 2) Remind Americans that as president, Trump has access to the very best intelligence but instead prefers to spread dark, false conspiracy theories; 3) Trump’s microphone is the loudest in the world, and whether he intends to, his words will stir some unstable and/or evil people to act; and 4) In putting Americans at risk, he violates his oath, and if he believes in what he’s saying, he is also mentally unfit to lead.
The media can go further than these statements. For starters, when a spokesperson such as the notoriously untruthful Kellyanne Conway comes on air to say she “just wants everything to be investigated,” the host has an obligation to call her out for putting words in Trump’s mouth and to compel her (i.e., do not move on with the interview) to admit he is propagating unfounded conspiracy theories. It is also incumbent on the media to grill every Republican who comes on: Is the president doing harm? Do you denounce his actions? Is a president who does this fit to serve?
Finally, as Tapper did, media outlets have to think long and hard about repeating Trump’s conspiracies theories. They also need to consider whether it is responsible to, in essence, republish Trump’s lies and his excuses for lies by giving a platform to his apologists. It is irresponsible to turn over a readership or viewership to apologists who make blatantly false analogies (e.g., claiming Dayton’s shooting was motivated by left-wing conspiracy theories).
Media organizations are not “taking sides” when they exclude false information, information that can be dangerous to boot. This is the trap of false balance. There is no balance required when it comes to “Did the Clintons kill Epstein?” or “Did Trump actually help propagate conspiracy theories?” There are factual answers (no and yes, respectively), and a responsible media organization does not allow an apologist to suggest that we really don’t know about those Clintons. A legitimate news organization does not provide a forum for hacks to lie that the president “just wants everything to be investigated.”
In short, the story here is threefold. The president is irresponsibly fanning incendiary conspiracy theories and white nationalist tropes; his aides won’t acknowledge that, so they lie about what he’s saying; and Republicans are too cowardly to denounce him or question his mental fitness. With Trump, his media mouthpieces and social media armies spreading so much misinformation that feeds the atmosphere, the mainstream media has an outsized obligation to provide a true accounting of events. If not, they become complicit.