As Fox News and right-wing media work to distract from the coronavirus pandemic by spinning a conspiracy theory around the investigation of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, mainstream media outlets are yet again failing to immediately debunk the accusations in their reporting.
Instead, they all too often repeat the lie before proceeding to take it apart — which only serves President Donald Trump’s purpose of making people uncertain of what to believe in the first place. As reported by The New York Times, “Trump hopes enough information will be released by his intelligence appointees to muddy the waters and lend a patina of confusion about what Mr. Obama may have done, according to people familiar with his thinking.”
It’s been a persistent problem in the Trump era that news headlines often don’t sufficiently communicate the extent of the president’s lies and distractions, as studies have found that a majority of people don’t click past the headlines, but will still share them via social media.
As such, a headline and lead paragraph that present false claims by Trump and his right-wing media supporters in a neutral fashion can enable the lies to keep on spreading, even if the article goes on to debunk the claims in some manner.
The latest example of this problem began with Richard Grenell, Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, and his decision to release the names of officials who had requested an “unmasking” — a routine process for intelligence reports — so they could learn the identity of an American frequently mentioned in intelligence intercepts. This person mentioned was Flynn, who later pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI about his calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Among those officials who requested to learn Flynn’s identity was then-Vice President Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz explains, the idea that Flynn was somehow being targeted in a nefarious manner by these officials ought to be manifestly absurd: “By definition, unmasking occurs when senior administration officials don’t know the name of an American referenced in an intelligence report.”
Gertz also concludes:
It’s no coincidence that Trump and Fox are trying to bully the mainstream press into giving the story more attention. They are counting on journalists to repeat the failures of the 2016 election and flood the zone with context-free scandal coverage that dirties up the president’s opponent. That’s the play Trump is calling, and the leaders of the Justice Department and intelligence community are eagerly supporting the effort, and will likely continue dropping noninformation and disinformation until Election Day.
And so far, the strategy may be working, even when news organizations apparently set out to deconstruct Trump’s claims. For example, CNN ran an analysis piece examining Trump’s latest conspiracy theory:
Even as this piece explains that Trump for years has “claimed without proof that Democratic partisans within the Justice Department and the FBI abused their powers to investigate members of his campaign and undermine his presidency,” a partial justification is seemingly given for the latest rhetorical sleight of hand: “The President is blending real findings of FBI misconduct with self-serving theories and cherry-picked information to weave together a much deeper and more sinister story.”
And as for FBI misconduct, it’s not until much later, in the second-to-last paragraph of a long piece, that we are also reminded: “The inspector general found that the FBI's decision to investigate several Trump campaign associates was legally justified and unaffected by bias. Yet even after the report came out in December, the President has continued to claim that the Russia probe was illegal and biased.”
The Associated Press has been the worst of the bunch. It ran an article on Wednesday headlined “Flynn case boosts Trump’s bid to undo Russia probe narrative.” The article copy itself seemingly details the Trump administration’s efforts to muddy the waters:
The dismissal [of Flynn’s case] rewrites the narrative of the case that Trump’s own Justice Department had advanced for the last three years in a way that former law enforcement officials say downplays the legitimate national security concerns they believe Flynn posed and the consequences of the lies he pleaded guilty to telling.
It’s been swept up in a broader push by Trump and his Republican allies to reframe the Russia investigation as a “deep state” plot to sabotage his administration, setting the stage for a fresh onslaught of election year attacks on past and present Democratic officials and law enforcement leaders.
“His goal is that by the end of this, you’re just not really sure what happened and at some gut level enough Americans say, ‘It’s kind of messy,’” said Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer.
This observation might have been useful, of course — but for the fact the AP’s own headline fell for that same trap.
But it gets worse. Today, the AP has another article embracing a both-sides narrative, presenting the latest effort by Trump and right-wing media to distract from the coronavirus pandemic as just another example of partisan polarization, titled “Split-screen America is back: Whistleblower and Flynn case.”
NEW YORK (AP) — If there was any doubt that news during the coronavirus pandemic would fall prey to split-screen America, it was removed on Thursday.
CNN spent more than three and a half hours covering live the congressional hearing where vaccine expert Rick Bright testified that the Trump administration was caught flat-footed by the pandemic and the country faces darker days ahead. MSNBC followed it for more than two hours.
On Fox News Channel, the bigger story was the revelation that Obama administration officials sought to “unmask” the identity of Trump adviser Michael Flynn, caught in surveillance reports having discussions with Russian officials before Trump’s inauguration.
It is not until the 15th paragraph — after recitations of the accusations by Fox News personalities against Obama — that we learn this disclaimer: “‘Unmasking’ of people in surveillance reports is considered a routine, and legal activity in government — the Trump administration made 10,012 such requests in 2019.”
The Los Angeles Times ran a piece Wednesday with the headline “Trump’s allies claim to see Biden’s hand in Flynn case” and the following lead paragraph:
President Trump’s efforts to use the now-closed Russia inquiry as a campaign issue got a potential boost Wednesday with the release of a declassified document tangentially tying Joe Biden, his likely Democratic opponent, to the investigation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor.
After privileging Trump's framing at the top of the piece, in the fourth paragraph we learn: “The declassified document does not show that Biden did anything improper, and it says the unmasking request was approved under normal procedures at the National Security Agency.”
NBC News seemingly set out to debunk the claims, but the network’s Twitter account put it out with a description that carried an overly passive phrasing.
The accompanying headline purportedly would debunk the story, “Trump allies push 'Obamagate,' but record fails to back them up,” but it still privileges the lie — the record should not “fail” to back them up, because it is not the official record’s job to support their assertions.
Reuters ran an article on Thursday that explained that Trump was “offering no details” on accusations against Obama, and noted that he “has in the past floated unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and critics say he is putting up a smokescreen now to draw attention from the health crisis on his watch.” But any good this article did was ruined by the neutral headline: “Explainer: Trump keeps raising 'Obamagate.' What's that?”
To be fair, there have actually been some decent headlines. Examples include:
- Politico: “With Obamagate, Trump returns to a favorite distraction tactic”
- Forbes: “Obamagate Isn’t A Scandal — It’s Unmasked Something Worse”
- The Washington Post: “Trump’s playbook on ‘Obamagate’ is extremely — and dubiously — familiar”
So there’s at least some understanding of the problem out there, and how to go about remedying it. But at this crucial juncture, in the middle of both a major public health crisis and an election season, there’s no room for continued errors.