Press coverage of Trump’s “chopper talk” is passing along his lies


Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

White House press briefings and formal presidential press conferences have been all but replaced by “chopper talk,” the regular but impromptu question-and-answer sessions President Donald Trump holds in front of the whirling blades of Marine One, as Politico’s Michael Calderone and Daniel Lippman describe in a Thursday story. The reporters point to a series of advantages these press gaggles give the president: They allow him to pick and choose the questions from the shouting press corps that he wants to answer; make complex questions, follow-ups, and attempts to pin Trump down all but impossible; and leave journalists looking “unruly and disorderly.” 

But there’s another way that “chopper talk” benefits Trump: News outlets tend to cover those press gaggles by transmitting the president’s typical stream of falsehoods to the public unimpeded. Journalists are rushing to pass along Trump’s statements without trying to verify his claims in a way that surely leaves their audience more confused and less informed. 

Trump constantly generates and promotes false statements, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. He’s made more than 12,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency, according to The Washington Post. 

These “chopper talk” gaggles are no different -- Trump made at least 11 false claims during Wednesday’s session, CNN reported. And Media Matters research indicates that the press is particularly vulnerable to Trump’s gaggle falsehoods, often amplifying his inaccurate claims without correction in cable news chyrons and social media postings.

CNN and MSNBC have largely stopped providing live coverage of Trump’s rallies -- perhaps recognizing that viewers do not benefit from watching Trump in an unfiltered venue where he will almost certainly produce a series of falsehoods. (Fox News, unconcerned with such things, continues to air them live.) Instead, journalists at those networks monitor the president’s speeches as they happen and report on and fact-check statements they consider newsworthy. 

But the president’s gaggles, which present the same problem of presidential misinformation, are often aired on all three networks shortly after they occur. That’s a mistake -- and one that is exacerbated by the networks’ chyrons, which frequently pass on his falsehoods without correction. 

Media Matters reviewed all 10 press gaggles the cable news networks aired in May. We found that roughly a third of the chyrons the networks appended to those gaggles referenced a false or misleading Trump statement -- and that 95% of those chyrons did not dispute his misinformation. While Fox was the worst offender, CNN and MSNBC chyrons pushed back on Trump’s falsehoods only a handful of times.

News outlets have a similar problem covering Trump’s press gaggles on social media. Journalists could use those venues to fact-check the president’s statements as he makes them -- CNN’s Daniel Dale, for instance, does just that. But media outlets fail to provide pushback 92% of the time when they tweet about false claims Trump makes during press gaggles and pool sprays, according to a Media Matters review of three weeks of tweets earlier this year from 32 Twitter feeds controlled by major news outlets. 

Our study shows that news outlets' Twitter feeds amplify the president’s falsehoods regardless of the venue in which he made them. But the rate at which the outlets pass on false claims made during press gaggles and pool sprays is much higher than that for speeches, interviews, or any other type of presidential remark we reviewed, suggesting a unique problem with the way news outlets are covering those occurrences.

Trump’s “chopper talk” gaggles may mean he’s taken more questions from reporters than his recent predecessors did. But this sort of access is meaningless without real accountability, and news outlets have a long way to go before their coverage of the gaggles provides it.