Since Donald Trump announced his campaign for president in June 2015, the press has frequently found itself reaching for euphemisms to describe his actions and resorting to uncritical stenography to avoid calling out his lies. But the cumulative effect of mainstream media’s long struggle to accurately portray the president’s words has been to mislead voters about his actual record.
In November 2016, for instance, ABC News ran the headline “Donald Trump Takes Credit for Keeping a Kentucky Ford Plant From Moving to Mexico,” even though Trump did not actually prevent the plant from moving, a fact that was buried three paragraphs into the story’s text. When he falsely claimed later that month that “millions” of people cast illegal ballots in the 2016 race, NBC News, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN were among the outlets to publish tweets and headlines echoing him without clarification. When Trump closed out that month by claiming that he would be “leaving” his “great business,” mainstream news outlets rushed to run headlines like “Trump cutting ties with businesses” and “Trump says he’s leaving businesses to focus on presidency.”
When Trump lied that preexisting conditions would be covered by the Republicans’ April 2017 health care bill, the press shared it. When, despite spending his entire presidency gutting environmental regulations, he made the absurd claim that he’s “an environmentalist,” mainstream media blasted that message out to their audiences. When he turned an October 2019 cabinet meeting into an extended monologue about how unfairly he was being treated by Democrats for opening an impeachment inquiry, mainstream outlets jumped at the opportunity to tweet out his false and unsubstantiated attacks on the opposition. This has happened again and again and again and again.
With a week to go until the 2020 election, it is imperative that journalists and reputable news outlets resist the temptation to fall into this trap yet again. But as outlets like The Hill have recently boosted Trump’s wildly inaccurate claim that “we’re rounding the turn” on COVID-19, Business Insider amplified the lie that a Biden presidency would mean seniors would have “no air conditioning during the summer,” and ABC News parroted Trump’s false statement about wind turbines “kill[ing] all the birds,” it seems some outlets still haven’t learned this important lesson.
Many voters don’t understand where candidates stand on issues, and amplifying incorrect claims certainly doesn’t help.
In August, The New York Times conducted a survey of 3,877 Americans aimed at learning what the public wants the government to do in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Times found that 69% of respondents favored requiring masks to be worn in public. Of those who favor mask mandates, 32% were self-identified Trump supporters. Trump, of course, is not in favor of requiring people to wear masks and has even turned the wearing of masks into something of an attack line against his opponent, raising the question of why this doesn’t seem to be a deal-breaker for his pro-mask supporters. Interestingly, the Times found that 81% of pro-mask Trump supporters wrongly believe the president agrees with them, while just 5% correctly noted that he is opposed to such rules.
“When people don’t have a sense for party or candidate platforms, they tend to assume that their preferred party or candidate agrees with them on the issues,” read the Times article. “This phenomenon, which political scientists call projection, appears to be operating here. People’s perceptions appear strongly influenced by which candidate they like.”
It’s not out of the ordinary for politicians to lie, but none seem to do it anywhere near as often or on as broad a number of issues as Trump. The latest update from The Washington Post, which has been tracking inaccuracies throughout his presidency, has Trump making more than 50 false or misleading claims each day. If people are already unsure of where Trump stands on a particular issue, running headlines based on his lies will only confuse them further.
For years, Trump has been promising to protect people with preexisting conditions, a policy first implemented during the Obama administration as part of the Affordable Care Act. Though he’s made vague promises about how great, inexpensive, and inclusive insurance will be under his plan for health care reform, every single time Trump has actually thrown his support behind a bill in Congress, it’s been something that would have weakened protections -- if not eliminated them altogether. A recent Commonwealth Fund survey found that 81% of Republican likely voters agreed with the assessment that Trump is “more likely to protect health insurance coverage” for people with preexisting health problems. There is zero evidence to believe this is true and plenty to believe it is not. Though many news outlets make a point of including these details in the articles themselves, it’s crucial that headlines avoid privileging lies.
It’s a safe bet that Trump will ratchet up his false claims this week, and he’s counting on the press to help his lies spread.
Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Trump announced that he and Republicans in Congress were planning a “very major tax cut” before the election. According to Trump, the cut would have been “about 10%” for the middle class. Despite the fact that Congress had already adjourned until after the midterms and his party appeared to be unsure of what he was talking about, a number of news outlets happily gave him the headlines he craved. “Trump says team working on tax cut for middle-income earners,” read a Reuters headline. “Trump wants to push middle-income tax cut through Congress,” said another at The Associated Press. “Trump wants new middle-class tax cut ‘of about 10 percent,’” read Politico’s write-up.
There was no plan for a tax cut, and journalists had an obligation to make that point clear in headlines. The stock market, Trump’s go-to measure of economic success, was tanking. Between October 3-26, 2018, the Dow took an 8% nosedive, and the Republican tax bill signed the previous December had proven to be a lot less popular than Trump had hoped. But policy was secondary to Trump’s desire for headlines; floating a tax cut, however fake it may have been, was a sign of desperation ahead of what Republicans feared would be a Democratic wave election.
Before his career in politics, Trump spent decades tricking New York tabloids into giving him favorable headlines. He planted stories with papers, he strategically leaked details, and sometimes he just flat out lied. His ability to launder his boasts through the press is how he built himself into a mythical, larger-than-life personality. According to an article published at The Daily Beast, Trump once bragged about his ability to trick the press into praising him for a change in tone early in his presidency:
“It’s so easy, can you believe it?” the president said during a dinner at the White House in early 2017, according to a source who was in the room at the time. “All I had to do was be a little nice… and do something beautiful [and now they’re] saying all these terrific things about Trump.”
During that conversation, Trump was referring to several high-profile TV personalities who usually were highly critical of him, but who were suddenly being “fair” to him for a news cycle, the source recalled. The dinner took place not long after the president addressed a joint session of Congress in February 2017 for the first time since his inauguration. During his speech, Trump honored the widow of a Navy SEAL who was killed in Yemen, in a nationally televised moment that was heralded as emotionally moving.
“He became president of the United States in that moment, period,” liberal commentator Van Jones said on CNN at the time. “That thing you just saw him do, if he finds a way to do that over and over again, he’s going to be there [in office] for eight years.”
There’s no telling what sort of lies, half-truths, and empty promises Trump will make as he fights for his political life, but one thing is certain: He still relies on mainstream media to get his messages to the public and to create a sense of credibility. After more than five years in the political spotlight, journalists know exactly who Trump is and how frayed his relationship with the truth can be. They have a responsibility to hold him to account -- and this week is a crucial opportunity to get it right.