A humorous fictional tale passed around the Net claims that Donald Trump hosts Pope Francis on his yacht on a windy day. While the yacht is still docked, a strong wind gust blows the Pope’s zucchetto (skullcap) into the water. Though the Pope’s entourage stares in shock, Trump climbs down the waterside ladder, walks about 30 feet across the water, and retrieves the cap. He then walks back across the water, climbs the ladder and returns the cap to the Pontiff. Even the media reporters are awed at Trump’s feat.
An hour later, a New York Times reporter tweets, “Trump Can’t Swim.”
(To be fair, a Conservative reporter might tweet, “Pope Praises Trump as his Savior.”)
Unfortunately, this joke’s punchline about the NYT proves the saying that “Many a true word is spoken in jest.” Once famous for the slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the NYT has chosen, “All the News that Fits Our Political Narrative.” The New York Post and the Washington Times, their conservative political opposites, are equally biased.
With a month of the Trump administration now behind us, journalists, pundits and politicians attempt to sound authoritative about “What Just Happened.” Whether their narratives are right or wrong, they all miss the most important point:
The entire media industry has lost its way. Whether they have a right or left ideology, TV news and print media are no longer information sources trusted by Americans.
- Reporters, from both the left and right, view events or hear about them through the closed “echo chamber,” then distort them, sometimes unconsciously.
- Within an hour of any politician’s remarks, millions of people believe and repeat egregious distortions and outright lies passed through social media.
- To headline-only readers accustomed to stories of 140 characters or less, the headline becomes the defacto truth. However, headlines and broadcast teleprompter lead-ins often differ from the reported story.
In a real world story, millions of people watched and heard Trump reference Mexicans, seeming to say “they are rapists.” It was a horrible, careless, statement, and many opined that it should end his campaign. Though the statement was thoughtless and inartful, his meaning wasn’t as reported. Apparently, reporters couldn’t or wouldn’t differentiate between the words “their” and “they’re.”
The quote was taken out of context. Trump was speaking about the Mexican government, stating that “they’re sending us (their) illegal immigrants, (their) drugs, (their) crime, and (their) rapists. Admittedly, the parenthetical words were unsaid. It was a cringe-worthy moment. Speaking in his unscripted style, he seemed to realize how bad that sounded. So Trump tried to recover by saying, “And some, I assume, are good people.” That non-sequitur wasn’t helpful.
One terrible error like that would be more or less forgotten. But social media magically transformed that scrap of nonsense into, “Trump is a racist.” The word racist is extremely powerful in our country, as we continually struggle with problems of racism. Obviously, calling a politician a racist is as damning to the voting public as calling him a “child predator.” Despite many distasteful remarks by Trump, there is no evidence of his being a racist.
In the most atrocious moment of his campaign, Trump had to confront a lewd hot-mic moment from eleven years ago, “yukking it up” with Billy Bush in comments about women. He apologized publically, calling his remarks about groping women’s private parts while embracing them, “locker-room talk.” Most men laughed at that because locker-rooms are public places filled with strangers, and sometimes, media people. It was more like barroom bragging, though Trump doesn’t drink. Every male over fifteen has heard that kind of talk, usually from men with ego problems who need to tell someone about their conquests. Most men dismiss boasts like these as being untrue. Moreover, they believe that it’s foolish to “kiss-and-tell.”
Nevertheless, reporters pushed it across social media, then printed and broadcasted salacious versions. Within hours, people were calling Trump “sexual predator,” and “rapist.” This is the result of a culture that often cannot tell the difference between manipulative sensationalism and the simple truth. Media people competing for readers and viewers instead of carefully reporting facts enhance the stories as a way of creating interest.
Hillary Clinton also suffered from distortions and egregious lies on occasion. The public heard that she had a terminal disease, which was totally untrue. Many people wrote or stated that she was under indictment and would be jailed, also untrue. And they heard a flood of untrue statements claiming that her two closest aides, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills were under investigation for criminal activities.
Clinton, however, was not as exposed to outrageous stories as Trump, because her campaign included virtually no unscripted speaking opportunities and far fewer prime-time debate appearances than Trump.
What is the role of individual media people in perpetuating misinformation like this? Despite Trump’s angry remarks charging the media with “fake news,” reporters commit errors and distortions in more subtle ways. One of these is by word choice. When a politician criticizes someone, some reports will choose “eviscerates,” “blasts,” or “destroys.” When someone charges that a statement made by an opponent is incorrect, reporters may call the challenge “exposing a lie.”
Print journalists make themselves the sole judges of a story’s importance by choosing the page for placement; positioning the story high or low on the page; choosing the number of columns the story gets; and the size of the headline type. If a headline like “Hillary Clinton is Under Indictment,” appeared in Section Two, Page 23, of the New York Times, with a single column, and 24-point headline, few readers would care about it. But the identical story with a front-page banner headline would be earth-shattering.
Similarly, cable news can take a headline story like “Trump has Russian ties,” and lead with it while playing “B-Roll” videos in the background. They can tease viewers with the story at station breaks, and repeat it on every news show throughout the day. Twenty-five-year-old backroom producers can make these decisions, even if they have no background information or training to prove or disprove the basic story.
How did all of this misinformation happen? The simple answer is that all professional media companies face crushing competition with social media and internet news pages that offer their information free to all. The result of this is a need for all news organizations to slash costs and field far fewer professional reporters. These smaller staffs can’t cover all of the stories on any given day. So they copy from each other, change their leads, revise some of the wording, and claim the story as original reporting. Reporters can be so desperate to meet deadlines that they will make a few random tweets into a story that is entirely baseless.
How can the media resolve these issues? We’ll discuss that in our next article.