History will judge media's refusal to call Trump a liar

Institutional cowardice

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Trump spoke at West Point over the weekend, lied to graduating candidates, and journalists reporting the event disguised the offense. Shouldn't the fact that the President of the United States can't carry out West Point honors without lying in prepared remarks be considered news? It should. But newsrooms long ago decided to spend Trump's presidency making sure news consumers are rarely told about Trump's explicit “lies.” Instead, they're tipped off to his "falsehoods," and other milquetoast phrases.

This remains a defining failure of the media during the Trump era, as news outlets decided not to hold the commander-in-chief accountable with clear language because it might upset him and spark cries of "liberal media bias." History will judge why the most powerful news organizations in America, supposedly committed to speaking truth to power, made the collective decision to not tell the unambiguous truth about Trump.

For the Trump's West Point lie, the New York Times went with "inaccurate claim." That's how the daily described his brazen lie about having inherited a "depleted" military, and that he invested "trillions" of dollars in the Pentagon's budget. (A Times print headline suggested it was a merely an exaggeration.)

This isn't journalism. It's some kind of weird hybrid where the Times and others grapple with creating a safe place where they can claim they’re holding Trump accountable without being honest and accurate in the process.

Make no mistake, lying defines Trump's presidency. He uses the avalanche of untruths not just for partisan political gain, but to chip away at our democracy — to undermine the country's faith in shared facts. And he does it at a truly stunning rate. He'll have told 22,000 lies by Election Day. (The topic of his lies gets addressed in opinion columns, but most newsrooms consistently refuse to call Trump a “liar.”)

One of the claims made during the "lies" vs. "falsehoods" debate from media defenders is that this semantic discussion doesn't matter because Trump's behavior won't change. Let’s flip that defense on its head: If calling Trump a liar is no big deal, than why don't all news outlets do it? Answer: They're afraid. And they invented new guidelines just for Trump.

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Some defenders also suggest news outlets like the Times deserve credit for their ongoing "Fact Check" series which documents Trump's lies (without calling them lies). I think "Fact Check" is part of the problem because it normalizes the lying. "Fact Check" becomes a forum where the Times is so committed to not using "lies" and "liar" it invents another dimension where the obvious gets obfuscated with watered down phrases, like these ones from recent "Fact Check" headlines:

— "Trump Misrepresents"

— "Trump Falsely Claims"

— "Trump’s Baseless Claim”

— "Trump’s Falsehoods"

— "Trump’s False Claims"

— “Trump’s Inaccurate Claims"

And most of those headlines were about a pandemic, a deadly topic that demands clarity. Three months in and we’re still waiting for the first, “Trump Lies About Pandemic” news headline from the mainstream media.

Distressing media examples like this abound. The Associated Press recently reported, "The White House is floating a theory that travel from Mexico may be contributing to a new wave of coronavirus infections, rather than states’ efforts to reopen their economies." That’s not a "theory," it’s a lie.

Look at the irony of how the Times' handled a recent opinion column by Peter Wehner. In an insightful piece, he warned that Trump's goal since inauguration, "was to annihilate the distinction between truth and falsity, to make sure that we no longer share facts in common, to overwhelm people with misinformation and disinformation. It was to induce epistemological vertigo on a mass scale."

Left unsaid was the fact that Trump's goal of abolishing shared facts has been boosted by news organizations like the Times who refuse to call him a liar. This was the headline for the Wehner column: "Trump Has Made Alternative Facts a Way of Life." That's an amorphous word salad that helps hide the disturbing truth. As Soledad O'Brien noted on Twitter, "When you call something “alternative facts” you embrace the bullshit idea that there is such a thing."

Yet so many publications do it. From the Washington Post: "Trump campaign is creating an alternate reality online about coronavirus." What the Post means in plain English is that Trump spent much of the winter lying relentlessly about a public health crisis. But the Post refused to state that clearly.

Every reporter covering Trump knows he's a pathological liar. It's just that they have to play word games conveying that to news consumers because artificial newsroom barriers have been constructed. Look at how CNN opted to describe his recent lies about the pandemic. "Trump's laughably obvious false claim about his travels was one of several false claims at his White House coronavirus briefing on Monday," the network reported. [Emphasis added.] "He also repeated his usual inaccurate claim that he had banned travel from China and Europe, his usual exaggerated figure for the past US trade deficit with China and his usual erroneous description of a comment from President Barack Obama about manufacturing jobs."

"Obvious false clams," "usual inaccurate clam," usual exaggerated figure," and "usual erroneous description," are all unnecessary euphemisms for "lie." More from CNN: "Donald Trump has spent decades spreading and sowing dangerous misinformation about disease outbreaks...[by] spreading unsupported medical claims."

Trump is doing untold damage to our democracy, and the media are helping him by normalizing his lies. It's an epic failure that history will not look kindly on.

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GOOD STUFF:

If you're a SiriusXM subscriber, make sure to check out Bruce Springsteen's guest DJ'ing duties, which he's doing regularly on the E Street Radio channel. The sessions started during the pandemic as Springsteen reached out to offer what comfort and wisdom he could through his thoughts and a wildly eclectic playlist of favorites. Then came the Black Lives Matter street uprisings.

From Esquire:

As one crisis bled into another, and the murder of George Floyd swept a different kind of fear and pain across the country, he clung to what he believes: that music can help. But while other artists’ at-home quarantine concerts wouldn’t translate during racial unrest, Springsteen’s format endures.

He has long been a believer in the power of radio as a shared, simultaneous experience that can bring strangers together.

Springsteen’s radio shows are worthwhile because you’ll discover songs through the ears of one of the great interpreters of sound for the last fifty years—and because of the small, resonant observations he makes between them. He’s not knee-jerking this.

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FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK:

Jayhawks, "This Forgotten Town"

I have such a soft spot for jangly, Midwestern rock, especially from Twin Cities’ Jayhawks, who have been making endearing, unpretentious music for more than 30 years. I was a big fan of the band from the early days when Mark Olson and Gary Louris teamed up and created a kind of magical, roots rock sound from the heartland. Over the years, that sound progressed and changed, exploring lots of interesting pockets.

“This Forgotten Town” finds Louris sharing vocals with longtime drummer Tim O’Reagan, and the results are sublime.

When we young we were judged
By the choices that we made
And all the time we wasted and
The love, the love that I betrayed
Well…