by Adam Siegel
The Democratic Party’s nominee for Governor of Virginia, current Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, might just have been given the greatest gift of the Virginia election campaign: @RealDonaldTrump tweeted an attack, a filled with falsehoods tweet (as he is so wont to do).
Before looking at that tweet, let’s be clear: the Virginia Republican Party and its nominee for Governor, Ed Gillespie, have created a deceptive (very Willie-Horton-like/race-baiting) attack, seeking to create a false impression that Ralph Northam — who has worked, hard, to make Virginians healthier and safer — is somehow complicit with gang violence. Donald Trump, perhaps the nation’s greatest consumer and purveyor of #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts (aka, LIES), not surprisingly latched onto and shared that Gillespie deceit.
Ralph Northam,who is running for Governor of Virginia,is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 6, 2017
To reiterate, Trump is LYING — Ralph Northam (like all relevant portions of Virginia governance) is of course working against the nation-wide MS-13 epidemic. As to sanctuary cities, Virginia doesn’t have any, so that’s a lie as well.
RALPH NORTHAM IS FIGHTING AGAINST MS-13.
What Trump’s doing here — as he is wont to do with Breitbart/Alex Jones/Fox (Faux) News — is simply amplifying a nasty lie. In this case, a nasty lie propagated by Ed Gillespie and the Virginia GOP.
Fortunately, this Trump’s engagement might just generate the sort of national (grassroots and institutional) Democratic Party enthusiasm for Northam and, in general, the Virginia elections that many see as missing in action. For example, rising star Jason Kander hasn’t been much of a voice in Virginia’s 2017 election season, but the top Northam-related tweet showing up in a search at the moment is the following:
Ralph Northam is a veteran who served his country with honor and you are a twitter commando who embarrasses our country every single day. https://t.co/Yhry4EpX1D
— Jason Kander (@JasonKander) October 6, 2017
It would be really cool if the President's tweet caused Ralph Northam to raise a lot of money tonight. https://t.co/nGWpeBVxug
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) October 6, 2017
…which, in turn, is a retweet of this:
— Jason Kander (@JasonKander) October 6, 2017
But, let’s go back to the introductory portion of this post. Dealing with Trump’s (and, well, much of today’s GOP’s) deceitful, narcissistic, ignorant, and often outright false statements, positions, and tweets is difficult. To provide honest assessment, one needs to frame the situation with some effort at being grounded in facts and truth. This is challenging, to say the least, as it debunking falsehoods is both hard and needs to follow rules for effectiveness. But hard is necessary, as to to simply pass around Trump material without an effort for context is to enable, promote, normalize the deceit.
Media outlets and journalists have a particular responsibility to avoid normalization of Trump’s alternative, fact-free universe. On this, I recommend a two-minute laydown by NYU Professor Jay Rosen: Normalizing Trump: An incredibly brief explainer: A conflict in the journalist’s code was created by a president wholly unfit for the job.
If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that.
This is “normalization.”
Which brings us to this post’s title. “Normalization” is exactly how The Washington Post handled Trump’s tweet on the campaign. Look at this tweet by the Post’s Lyndsey Layton:
— Lyndsey Layton (@LyndseyLayton) October 6, 2017
“Trump says …” normalizes Trump and enables a he-said, she-said sort of nature to Trump’s falsehood. As per this post, my reaction there (and, well, to other similar Post staff sharing of this article):
— A Siegel (@A_Siegel) October 6, 2017
Now, something about tweets and headlines: they matter. While perhaps regretfully, the reality is that they matter far more than the content of the article for influencing public discussion. As a Washington Post headline put it back in 2014: Americans read headlines: and not much else.
…roughly six in 10 people acknowledge that they have done nothing more than read news headlines in the past week. And, in truth, that number is almost certainly higher than that, since plenty of people won’t want to admit to just being headline-gazers
Even that, however, understates the situation because this study didn’t try to examine ‘how many headlines [tweets] are read per story that is eventually read’ nor ‘how often do people read the full article and not just the first few paragraphs’.
Taking twitter, as an example, a decent (good) ‘click-through’ rate might be in the 1-2% range, with then maybe 10% reading the full story. E.g., from Twitter, one might expect 1/10th of 1% of the people who see the tweet (the headline) to expend the energy to get to the last paragraph and, thus, ‘the rest of the story’.
The Post‘s tweet is the story’s headline. When one gets to this story, it is not until the 11th paragraph that we find:
But in late September, Gillespie rolled out four TV ads and mailings that sought to tie Northam to the MS-13 gangs – a claim that has been labeled “misleading” by the non-partisan FactCheck.org and racist by immigration advocates.
(As an aside, note that The Post didn’t bother to link to that Fact Check piece … hmmm, not interesting in sending clicks to sources?)
Now, if the ‘ad’ is misleading (complicated reasons why it is ‘misleading’ rather than simply ‘false’ (see that Fact Check piece), there is zero question that Trump’s tweet (with the false (and, well, defamatory) accusation (libel) that Northam is “fighting for MS-13”) rises to falsehood — a lie.
In its handling of Trump’s falsehood and defamatory attack, The Washington Post normalizes Trump: treating his slander as “he says” in the most viewed reporting (tweets, headlines), then burying deep within the article a mild providing of context (focused on the Gillespie ad) — not making clear the utter falsehood of Trump’s (not out of character) disgusting attack. Rather than burying within, the story should have made clear that Trump’s tweet is libelous and a falsehood. That should have been in the headline and in the tweets.
Having failed to do so in this case, The Washington Post owes its readers — and American Democracy — better in the future.