The news was too good to check -- so at first, they didn’t. Just days after his 2016 election, Donald Trump took credit on Twitter for working with Ford Motor Co.’s chairman to stop a plant from moving from Kentucky to Mexico. Credulous headlines followed, as news outlets rushed to trumpet the president-elect’s declaration that he had scored a victory for American manufacturing workers. But it quickly became clear that Trump had just been bullshitting -- Ford had never planned to close the factory in question, and likely could not do so under the company’s union contract.
Trump has spent the last four years as a “vaporware” president. His results constantly fail to live up to his lofty declarations, from North Korean negotiations that fizzle to coronavirus testing plans that never materialize.
But the editors of major news outlets have not incorporated that reality into their coverage. They still don’t seem to understand that the most important information about a Trump policy announcement is not whether his proposal is a good idea or whether it will be politically advantageous, but whether his administration is actually doing what he claimed it was doing. That makes them easy marks for Trump’s disinformation, which exploits their standard journalistic practice of writing up presidential claims as news.
The latest test for the press came Sunday, when Trump announced in a pair of tweets that he had signed an executive order that would “LOWER DRUG PRICES” by ensuring that “our Country gets the same low price Big Pharma gives to other countries.” He added that “prices are coming down FAST!”
That would be a big deal if it were true: Just weeks before the 2020 election, Trump would have helped millions of people with an immensely popular policy; stolen an issue from progressives, who have long supported letting the federal government negotiate for lower drug prices; and created the political battle he clearly wants with the much-loathed pharmaceutical industry.
But of course, it isn’t true. What the order actually does is require the secretary of health and human services to implement rulemakings “to test a payment model” in which the cost of certain unspecified drugs prescribed under Medicare Part B or Part D would not exceed the cost pharmaceutical companies charge in comparably wealthy countries. It’s unclear from the order which drugs would be included and whether or when the pilot program might be extended to the rest of the population. Even that test phase might violate a federal law which bans the government from negotiating drug prices -- and Trump previously threatened to veto legislation passed by House Democrats that would have repealed that law.
This is another clear case of Trumpian vaporware. But you’d be hard-pressed to figure that out from the credulous headlines of several news outlets which indicated that Trump had done the thing he claimed, even in articles whose text often made clear he had not. Good headlines are crucial because readers often do not read deep into articles, as Media Matters has repeatedly documented.
The Wall Street Journal used the headline “Trump Executive Order Takes New Aim At Drug Prices” and the subheadline “Drug industry quickly criticized the order” for a report pointing out that the “proposed executive order would appear to be of limited immediate effect.”
Politico went with “Trump unveils plan to slash drug costs tied to what’s paid abroad” and “The pharmaceutical industry and many conservative groups vehemently oppose the most favored nations plan”:
The Hill headlined its report “Trump signs new executive order aimed at lowering drug prices”
Reuters similarly headlined its story “Trump signs new, expanded executive order to lower U.S. drug prices”:
And The New York Times headlined its write-up “Trump Issues Expansive Order Aimed at Lowering Drug Prices,” though it at least provided a more skeptical subheadline:
The timing of this particular Trump disinformation operation is reminiscent of the fake middle class tax cut Trump floated passing before the 2018 midterms. That was complete nonsense: GOP congressional leaders had no idea what he was talking about, Congress wasn’t even in session at the time, and nothing ever came of the idea. But Trump garnered a slew of headlines claiming that he was trying to pass a middle class tax cut, which was apparently all he wanted out of the claim in the weeks before the election.
Trump has learned from experience that the press will reward him with coverage for promising seemingly positive policy changes that never actually pan out. That makes it overwhelmingly likely that he will use that strategy again as voters go to the polls in the weeks to come.
If journalists want to actually do their part to ensure an informed electorate, they’ll need to finally change their practices to avoid giving credulous coverage to his empty promises and vaporware policies -- and time is running out.