Writer’s note: although Trump’s tweets would be illustrative of this post I will not give them added oxygen. I’ll summarize his statements and expound.
Do you think if Hillary Clinton told a half dozen lies every day reporters would be debating if she actually knew she was lying or not?
— Schooley (@Rschooley) May 27, 2018
“A lie can travel around the world while the truth is lacing up its boots.” Mark Twain was reportedly inspired by literary icon Jonathan Swift when he said that—and it’s true now more than ever.
The Twitterverse has been aflame recently with calls for U.S. news media to term Trump untruths and distortions “lies,” which led me to throw up this post. In journalism practice, training and education, terming something a “lie” is an intentionally high rhetorical bar that most don’t dare jump.
Here's the thing about the reluctance to use the word "lie."
It is just true that many journos still won't publicly acknowledge the true depths of bad faith & illiberal authoritarianism at core of Trump-era conservatism's posture towards the media.
And this does mislead people.
— Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) May 27, 2018
These are not normal times.
Reporters covering Donald are in a pickle, I’ll admit it. Since he took office* (*installed by a hostile foreign power) he’s said more than 3,000 false or misleading things, according to the Washington Post.
In football parlance it’s tantamount to “flooding the zone” with total crap, which is ultimately just another way to obfuscate the truth of your actions.
Does calling something “a lie” really have to pass a high bar? Are journalists using that rule as a shield so that they can maintain access to Trump, build their platforms and sell books?
Mainstream reporters will tweet out summations of Trump’s particular mood; try to implausibly knock down assumptions of a particular white house* happening; or take it upon themselves to interpret his thinking—with thoughts like “oh, here’s what he really meant.” Which is of course a load of crap.
FWIW Jay's subtweets to Maggie are pretty great. https://t.co/i4PeakcdXZ
— Will's Adam Schiff Dance Party 3 feat. Ester Dean (@bywillpollock) October 1, 2017
Maggie has a new book deal about Trump, and Maggie cares more about her "insider access" than anyone in Puerto Rico.https://t.co/QOWyOzFHmM
— Jay McKenzie (@JamesFourM) September 30, 2017
Here’s why journalists need to burn the rule book. Trump’s outlandish lies are themselves torn from the playbook of noted communist Joseph Stalin. This Wikipedia entry is pretty great:
Disinformation is false information spread deliberately to deceive. The English word disinformation is a translation of the Russian dezinformatsiya, derived from the title of a KGB black propaganda department. The book Disinformationdocuments that Joseph Stalin coined the term, giving it a French-sounding name to falsely claim it had a Western origin.
Although Trump probably believes he was the first to make a red-baseball hat famous, “Fake News” is also not his invention. Have a look at this Vox piece and you’ll learn that it was coined and practiced by Russia first.
Ditto that for “Witch hunt!” which is a Cletus go-to for deflection. That term has McCarthy, Nixon and Cold War roots, as USA Today‘s Howard Blum can explain in greater detail.
The “criminal deep state,” another Trump favorite, may not directly trace its etymology to Russia but the aforementioned tactic of “flooding the zone” with repetition and lies is full-on Soviet in style and delivery. The more he repeats himself, the more he thinks it’ll be true (and he’s actually partly right about that).
I make a point on twitter and on this blog not to augment phrases and words used by propagandists on all sides of the spectrum. And I want my readers and everyone to be choosy and discerning about where you get your news.
Nicolle Wallace recently gave us a masterclass in how an on-air TV journalist should give viewers context about what they’re about to see:
Good rules of thumb: thank a reporter for a good story. In addition to where you get news, make sure you check story bylines to see if it’s from a reporter you trust. Use my handy “Trusted Newser” list below as a starting point—they are the gold standard of reporting in my opinion. The good ones are not falling for these tactics and will help you parse the day’s news.
Most of all, reporters need to ditch the F-ing rule book. Anything less than calling out a lie is enabling a tyrant and is a slow poisoning of our fragile democracy. 🔴
He is the author of two books (Pizza for Good & Leaving Triscuit), with more on the way. Sign up for the mailing list, follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram–and check out the book links below. Make sure to comment often–cranky loves company.
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