In 2018, President Donald Trump fired pandemic response teams that President Barack Obama had put together.
In 2020, faced with what may soon officially be a pandemic, Trump is trying to blame Obama for his administration’s poor response to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
The New York Times covered this situation with a piece that led with Trump’s claim and waited until the third paragraph to note that it was based on nothing.
It was immediately apparent that this approach was flawed.
CNN debunked Trump's claim about Obama and testing, in a piece titled “Trump falsely claimed that Obama administration slowed down diagnostic testing, experts say.”
Media Matters has written extensively about headlines in an era when lies are, in the words of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, meant to “flood the zone with shit.”
The best way to deal with this shit is with a truth sandwich, an approach advocated by George Lakoff. The idea is to start with the truth to emphasize the accurate information -- and not the lies.
As Media Matters’ Parker Molloy and Beth Cope wrote last year:
George Lakoff, director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society and a former professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, told us that the “way your brain works is that you take the things you hear first and understand other things in terms of that.” Thus a headline that quotes something that’s not true -- even if to counter it, Lakoff would argue -- can leave readers believing it.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology further explains how the brain processes information, noting that the impact of headline misinformation can persist even when readers do continue through to the article.
Lakoff has written that our president is a “super salesman” who knows how to work the media, getting the headlines and articles he wants.
“Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him to put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas,” he writes. “His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy.”
“I don’t think he’s stupid,” Lakoff told us in an interview. “He knows that he can get his point of view out there.”
And indeed, Lakoff himself presented a better approach that the Times could have drawn from.
It’s more than a little late for the Times to be learning about the effects of disinformation in the Trump era. The paper has mentioned Trump’s firing of the pandemic response teams in only a handful of pieces.
But as they say, better late than never.
Update (11:45 a.m.): This piece has been updated with a link to CNN's debunk of Trump's claim.