As Donald Trump’s three-ring circus-style campaign of misinformation winds down, one of the lingering questions is whether the press has helped normalize the kind of post-truth performance that the Republican presidential nominee has so enthusiastically embraced.
Faced with the tricky task of covering a radically different type of candidate who walked away from so many previous norms of American politics (i.e. truth telling for him was entirely optional), the Beltway press faced a defining test: Forcefully call out Trump’s lies, or find wiggle room to politely describe his behavior.
Trump’s not a politician who artfully shades the truth, or who has a tendency to modestly alter his proposal based on whichever audience he’s addressing. He’s just a chronic liar.
On this crucial assignment, I’d give the press a C+/ B- grade.
12 months ago, it was becoming obvious that Trump campaigned as an unrepentant liar and that the campaign press had never dealt with a candidate who felt so compelled to make stuff up while simultaneously refusing to ever acknowledge or correct those fabrications. (Even many conservatives agree on that point.)
In other words, Trump was ripping up the old playbook. No longer concerned with media fact-checkers who proved him wrong, and no longer interested in running any sort of factual campaign, Trump invented his own model and dared journalists to alter their ways in order to adjust to the Trump fabrication revolution.
“Chronic,” “compulsive,” “pathological.” Those are not phrases that most journalists have felt comfortable regularly using when describing Trump’s run, even though when you look at the totality of his nonstop prevarications, those adjectives certainly apply.
For the most part, the press never entirely ripped up its old playbook in order to cover Trump’s radical run. Instead, for too much of the race, journalists often clung to the conventional template to portray Trump as running something resembling a conventional White House run. The press seemed uncomfortable with accurately identifying Trump and his campaign for what they represented. (That includes his TV surrogates.)
And I’m still waiting for journalists to take deep dives into Trump’s troubled personality in search of an explanation for his pathological ways. (Note that the press loves playing armchair psychologist to Hillary Clinton to explain her alleged flaws.)
Here’s a perfect example of how, with just two weeks left until Election Day, the press is still letting Trump get away with his lying game.
Following last week’s final presidential debate, some commentators suggested Trump had done very well during the first half-hour. They contrasted that with the remaining 60 minutes, during which Trump suggested he might not accept the results on Election Day and derided Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman.” Before those colossal missteps, pundits suggested, Trump was on his way to delivering a winning debate performance.
We saw the same widespread media response after the first debate, as well: If only Trump had been able to maintain his focus from the first half-hour, he might have been able to able to post an impressive debate performance.
But here’s the thing: during the first half-hour of those debates, Trump lied constantly.
During the first debate, in roughly the first 30 minutes, the GOP nominee badly misstated facts about job losses in Ohio under President Obama, Ford shipping “small car division” jobs to Mexico, the amount of financial support Trump enjoyed from his father over the years, whether he previously called climate change a “hoax,” the rate of energy production in the United States, the idea Clinton’s been fighting ISIS her “entire adult life,” and why he can’t release his tax returns.
During the third debate’s first half-hour, Trump made stuff up about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clinton’s gun policy, her immigration policy, abortion, being endorsed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, the economic effects of NAFTA, not having a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. security officials having “no idea” whether Russia has played a role in recent email hacks, and insisting Japan and South Korea pay nothing for American troops being based in their country.
Despite that cabaret of nonstop fabrications, media observers praised those portions of Trump’s debate performance even though they were built around lies and fabrications. The standard that journalists still to use for Trump was that if he looked and sounded presidential while lying during debate, he scored points.
Beyond those 30-minute sections, the debates represented a forest fire of falsehoods for Trump. According to Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, who methodically fact-checked the three presidential forums, Trump made 104 false statements during the debates, compared to Clinton’s 13. Incredibly, Trump unfurled 37 false statements during the third debate, which averaged out to one whopper for every minute he spoke that night.
Obviously, one of the reasons we know Trump can’t tell the truth is because media fact-checkers have worked overtime to document his trail of deceit. And that’s been the good news. The bad news has been that the polite fact checking sometimes seemed to be cordoned off, and isn’t always used as aggressively in the day-to-day campaign coverage.
As I previously highlighted, last December Trump uncorked the unsupportable claim that the wives of the 9/11 hijackers “knew exactly what was going to happen” the day of the terror attack and had been flown “back to Saudi Arabia” days before the hijacked plane strikes. (Fact: Most of the hijackers weren’t even married.) Addressing the specious claim, The New York Times reported that Trump was “fuzzy” on his 9/11 facts and that the wives tale didn't “align” with “the timeline and details of the hijacking of the planes.” The Times suggested Trump was simply “having trouble keeping some details straight about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.”
But that was timid 2015 Trump coverage, right? Didn’t the press wise up to his falsehoods in time for the general election campaign? Not always.
Last month, when the Times reported on Trump’s proposal for child-care and maternity leave plan, the paper noted that “in selling his case, Mr. Trump stretched the truth, saying that his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has no such plan of her own and ‘never will.’”
False. Trump didn’t ‘stretch the truth,’ he flat out lied: Clinton does have a plan of her own and she unveiled it last year, which the Times itself noted.
Time and again, reporters and their editors, fumbling over polite euphemisms, simply couldn’t summon the nerve to accurately label Trump’s lies for what they were.
And that creates a disturbing precedent going forward. Yes, it appears that Trump’s marathon of lies most likely isn’t going to win him the White House. But his bizarre detachment from the facts did highlight a stress point within the Beltway press: Its lingering hesitancy to call out a bullying Republican who dared journalists to use the “L” word.