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Check Trump’s ‘facts’ and don’t repeat them

After Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror in the name of anti-communism ended with his censure by the U.S. Senate, news organizations that unwittingly collaborated in his rise to power underwent a collective examination of conscience.  

They concluded that it was neither professional nor honorable to play the role of stenographer when reporting on the ravings of a demagogue.  Merely writing down McCarthy’s “revelation” about 205 communists in the State Department without determining its veracity wasn’t journalism. The public’s right to know wasn’t served by simply reporting that “Senator McCarthy charged today that…” without examining the accuracy of the accusation.   

This “new” kind of reporting served the news consuming public better during the civil rights movement when demagogic Southern politicos like George Wallace tried to exploit racial fears.

Since then, we’ve had our share of liars and demagogues on the right and left but, thanks to vigorous exposure by the news media, none was able to flourish — until now.

Donald Trump is the most accomplished demagogue and the most prolific liar American politics has ever seen. The first part of that statement is opinion but the second part has been documented by fact checkers who have counted, since his inauguration, more than 3000 lies or about six every day.

He launched his campaign on the racially charged, constantly repeated lie that President Obama was born in Kenya, tried and convicted his opponent of crimes by repeatedly referring to “crooked Hillary” as his admirers chanted “lock her up” and even lied about his popular vote loss by claiming 3 million illegal voters voted for crooked Hillary.

With the demagogue’s flair for lying and fear-mongering, Trump has successfully parlayed illegal immigration into a mammoth distraction from his and the nation’s other problems.  

The “infestation” of mostly drug dealers, rapists, smugglers and MS 13 gangsters has been his most successful lie. (MS 13, a gang founded in that foreign land known as Los Angeles, has 10,000 members, fewer than one percent of the million gang members in the USA.)

But it all caught up with him when he decided to take the children of illegal immigrants from their parents, lock them up in sanitized concentration camps every bit as nice as the camps that held Japanese Americans during World War II, claim he was powerless to rescind the practice and blame it all on the Democrats.

As all this was happening, journalists were paying attention to a column by a highly respected colleague, Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media reporter and former public editor of The New York Times. 

Sullivan cited a study by George Lakoff, a propaganda specialist who recommends that the media stop treating every presidential tweet and utterance — whether true or false — as news.

He says journalists should also refrain from retelling Trump’s lies because “it is that very amplification that gives them power.” Repetition is the engine that drives the big lie. For example, Trump’s insistence that the special counsel’s investigation is a groundless “witch hunt” is clearly untrue but it “gains traction because he keeps saying it.” And we keep reporting it.

Trump is a most proficient practitioner of the big lie and the news media — not just his Fox News house organ — dutifully assist him by repeating the lies every time he tells them.

Sullivan and others have also urged reporters covering Trump to determine the truth of a Trump claim as quickly as possible. It is far more responsible to determine and report on the truth of a Trump claim in the same story, even if it takes a bit more time.  

Reporters learned that in McCarthy’s day and it is no less important now. Fact checking after the lie is vital but getting the facts out simultaneously with the lie is even more essential because the checked fact always has trouble catching up with the big lie.

This idea, thanks to the increased lying by the president, his attorney general and secretary of homeland security during the separation of children from immigrant parents, seems to be catching on.

On the day he issued the order ending the separation of immigrant children, Trump appeared at a campaign rally before the only Americans he seems to care about — his base — and the Associated Press provided thoughtful coverage.

The story pointed out Trump made only one brief mention of the order “after spending days if insisting — wrongly — that his administration had no choice but to separate families apprehended at the border.”

The AP also noted that Trump “erroneously suggested the Department of Justice inspector general report on the FBI handling of the Clinton emails proved his innocence in the special counsel’s Russia investigation.”

In the bad, old days — a few weeks ago — such coverage might have simply noted that Trump made a brief mention of his order ending the separation and Trump said the IG’s report exonerated him in the Mueller witch hunt. The AP did better with just two words — wrongly and erroneously.

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.