Discover more from Stop the Presses
It’s false ‘fairness’ to help right-wing politicians lie.
Why do journalists continue to let Donald Trump lie in their stories?
The Washington Post published an important story over the weekend about how Donald Trump is plotting to wield dictatorial power if he gets back in the White House.
The Post didn’t use the word “dictator,” because the Post likes to paint its facts in muted tones, and sometimes in camouflage. Nonetheless it reported some disturbing developments — that Trump has identified enemies to be punished by the Justice Department if he regains power, and that his co-conspirators are developing a plan to invoke the Insurrection Act on Day One and impose a military crackdown against protesters.
In effect, Trump is planning to do what he tried to do on Jan. 6, 2021 — crush democracy.
The article did a good job of explaining why we should be alarmed, but its eighth paragraph revealed something else that’s troubling. It showed how established news reporting habits can play into the fascists’ hands.
The paragraph read:
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung did not answer questions about specific actions under discussion. “President Trump is focused on crushing his opponents in the primary election and then going on to beat Crooked Joe Biden,” Cheung said. “President Trump has always stood for law and order, and protecting the Constitution.”
By including that paragraph, the Post planted what I call a “fairness flag.” That’s when a news outlet goes hard against a politician based on proven facts but then gives the politician a paragraph or two in the story to say what they want. News outlets do this to project fairness. It’s something they can point to when anyone complains that they’re picking on the politician.
But it’s a practice that invites abuse. We can all agree that fairness is good, but helping dangerous politicians lie to the public is not. And that’s just what the Post did in that paragraph.
First off, Trump’s spokesman called Joe Biden “crooked” without offering any factual evidence of anything. It was a cheap shot. The Post should be better than that even if Trump isn’t.
Also, Trump is under indictment on 91 criminal charges in four different jurisdictions. It stretches logic to say he “has always stood for law and order.” On the contrary, he said as president he had “the right to do whatever I want.”
And last December, Trump posted on Truth Social in favor of “termination” of the Constitution. That’s the exact opposite of “protecting the Constitution.”
News organizations have no obligation to surrender any part of their story to the people they’re reporting on. But they do have an obligation to tell their audience the truth as they know it.
Here’s how that paragraph could have been fixed.
First, the quote could have been paraphrased and tightened:
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung did not answer questions about specific actions under discussion. He said Trump was focused on winning the Republican nomination and then defeating Joe Biden.
Stop the paragraph there. The second sentence of Cheung’s quote adds nothing factual. A news story does not have to be a free ad.
But if journalists really think they need to plant a “fairness flag” with a direct quote, they can include a quote and fact-check it:
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung did not answer questions about specific actions under discussion. He said Trump was focused on winning the Republican nomination and then defeating Joe Biden. “President Trump has always stood for law and order, and protecting the Constitution,” said Cheung in a statement that’s at odds with the facts that Trump is facing 91 criminal counts in four different cases and has called for “termination” of the Constitution to restore him to office.
Take your choice. I like the first approach.
Some may say that giving a politician like Trump a paragraph or two to lie in a news story is not a big deal because the Washington Post’s readers are sophisticated enough to see through that. Well, maybe. But it’s obvious that repetition of lies has an effect. It’s just human nature. And marketing. The more the news media spread Trump’s disinformation, the more people will believe it.
The news media’s job is not to amplify lies — it’s to amplify the truth. Journalists can’t let “fairness flags” lead to the white flag of surrender.