It’s a sad truth about the man occupying the Oval Office, but when @RealDonaldTrump tweets, all too often Trump lies. And, also sadly, often we see the Washington Post’s reporters normalizing those Trump lies. That link is to my Blue Virginia post about Trump’s endorsement of “Enron Ed,” how Trump takes Gillespie’s Willie Horton-like MS13 ads from deceptive to an outright attack lie, and how the Post’s headlines and tweeting of the story buried the lede: namely, that Trump joined Gillespie in lying.
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.
FIGHTING AGAINST MS-13.
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
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.
In the print version of its article, the Post team pretty much doubled down and worsened their normalization of the nasty lie. The Post’s headline to a really long front-page story (over 40 column inches — e.g., half a page) simply lets you know that Trump endorsed Gillespie, while the first paragraph essentially just repeats Trump’s (false) accusations in endorsing Gillespie.
To emphasize a point that can’t be emphasized enough: HEADLINES MATTER — they seriously frame how one reads stories (“psychologists have long known that first impressions really do matter”) and the majority of people don’t even get around to reading anything more than the headline.
This past Saturday, the Post published my letter to the editor about this.
The Oct. 8 front-page article “President, with tweet, dives into Virginia race” covered President Trump’s endorsement of Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race in a tweet that falsely accused Democrat Ralph Northam of “fighting for the violent MS-13.” Trump’s tweet was repeated in the article’s second paragraph.
Not until the 31st paragraph were readers provided context in which they learned that a “misleading” Gillespie ad sparked Trump’s accusation. Repeated analysis has shown that very few readers make it that far into an article, and, substantively, the article’s structure thus failed to inform readers of critical context. And, nowhere did the article make clear that Trump’s tweet went from “misleading” to potentially libelous material.
The article focused on a political analysis of Trump’s potential impact in the election. That’s horse-race journalism.
Fact check after fact check has made clear that Trump’s statements and tweets are often divorced from reality. The headline on this article should have read:
Trump joined Gillespie in lying about Northam
because it is true (backed by facts) and interesting and new. To treat Trump’s distortions as legitimate, without making clear the falsehoods they contained, is to normalize the abnormal.
The Post owes its readers and American democracy better.
Okay, great that the Post’s letter editors saw the issue here — from journalistic malpractice of burying the lede to journalistic malfeasance of normalizing/enabling Trump deceit — but the following days make one wonder whether commentaries like the above get read (or taken to heart) by anyone in the newsroom.
The following examples are not exactly the same, but very much demonstrate the “normalizing” of Team Trump and its alternative fact perspectives on the world.
- Re Kelly’s attacks on Representative Wilson, the front page article seems to have worn out a thesaurus in finding ways to avoid saying that Kelly lied, which is what he did.
- Re Trump tweeting attacks on Wilson, the Post’s article did not make clear the simple truth that Trump lied (repeatedly) about his contacts with Gold Star families/handling of soldier deaths.
- Re the DNC meeting and the Virginia election, the front page article seems to have rewritten history in using phrases like “bucked Trump’s 2016 wave …Trump’s winning message …” leading to a WTF reaction:
- Wave? Clinton, in the face of everything, had over 3 million more votes, as Trump squeaked by with what what any rational person would see as a highly questionable electoral college win.
- Winning message? Again, Clinton won the popular vote by over 3 million. And that was even in the face of: Russian propaganda, voter suppression, and increasingly disturbing probing questions/commentaries from cyber-security experts about the (lack of) integrity of the U.S. election system.
Saturday, the Post published my letter about not normalizing Trump’s deceit. Sunday and Monday, they continued the practice. As the letter ends …
The Post owes its readers and American democracy better.
So far, that doesn’t seem to be what we’re getting.
NOTE: To be clear, this journalistic malfeasance is not isolated to The Washington Post (which, by the way, does have some tremendous work, including the nearly always awesome cartoonist Tom Toles). The New York Times’ new social media guidance drives “both sides” mentality into rule sets, rather than simply bad practice. Their treatment of Kelly’s and Trump’s despicable (and authoritarian) attacks on Wilson was even worse “both siderism” than The Post‘s. For some perspective, see Eric Umansky’s brilliant analysis here, which begins, “This article should be taught as a case study in the Cult of Both Sides & how poorly it serves journalism…”