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Thu 1 October 2020
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CJ Werleman explores the repercussions for US democracy of the press not saying it like it is when it comes to the President

US President Donald Trump has now made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims during his first term in office, as documented by the Washington Post. Yet, I can recall only two instances in which a member of the White House press pool, or any journalist for that matter, has framed his deceptions as lies to his face.

ABC News reporter Jon Karl did when he asked Trump last week “why did you lie to the American people?” after tapes suggested that the President had knowingly deceived the public on the Coronavirus. Huffington Post reporter SV Dáte also tried the direct approach, asking: “Mister President, after three-and-a-half years, do you regret at all, all the lying you’ve done to the American people?”

Trump lies about everything – from the state of the economy to the size of his personal fortune, to rebuilding the military to reducing the national debt, to bringing back autoworker jobs to the policy positions of his political opponents, to the life-threatening consequences of a deadly virus. Whether speaking in front of sycophantic crowds or a neutered press pool or rage-posting from his social media accounts, Trump floods the zone with so many mistruths that it makes real time fact-checking an almost impossible task.

The media, however, still refuses to call a spade a spade and a lie a lie.

“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,’” observes Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow for Media Matters For America.

As a result, voters, particularly on the right, are drowning in Trump’s lies and deception – a reality driven home last week when journalists from The Economist travelled to Ohio, one of the key battleground states in November’s Presidential Election, to see how construction workers view Trump.

Kyle, a 30-year-old electrician, told them: “He’s done a great job, he’s got everyone back to work. I’m pretty much 100% for him.”

This is despite the fact that more than 30 million Americans are currently out of work, with the unemployment rate at a level not seen since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

“He shoots his mouth off but at least that shows he’s honest,” said Jason, a pipe-fitter, who told The Economist he especially liked Trump’s commitment to reducing the national debt.

Trump has added $6 trillion to the national debt, representing a near tripling of Obama’s deficit spending.

“He’s done more for our country than the past 10 Presidents put together,” said a builder named Jeff. “He’s made – who is it, China or Japan? – pay our farmers billions of dollars. He got healthcare done, which the Democrats could never do. He built the wall.”

Trump, not China or Japan, doled out $28 billion to farmers to offset the economic damage his trade war has inflicted upon them. President Obama was the first US President to pass healthcare reform into law since the Second World War, and Trump has stripped away much of that coverage. Trump has completed only 93 miles of the 500-mile-long border wall – but only three miles if the replacement of existing border structures is discounted.


Free Pass from the Free Press

Certainly, much of the blame lies with Fox News and the entire right-wing media, but the mainstream media isn’t without fault – and its failure to hold the President to account for his lies isn’t only a feature of the Trump presidency.

When the George W. Bush administration was making its case for a US invasion of Iraq, the mainstream media refused to call the President a liar for falsely inferring that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with the 9/11 hijackers and/or al-Qaeda. 

The result? A 2003 Harris poll found that 50% of Americans believed that there was “clear evidence that Iraq was supporting al-Qaeda had been found in Iraq, while another poll in the lead up to the invasion found an equal share of the public believed Iraqi nationals were among the hijackers.

While neither Bush nor any of his Cabinet-level officials claimed outright that Hussein was behind 9/11, they made a habit of mentioning the Iraqi leader’s name in the same breath as 9/11 – leaving the public to “make the link on their own”, as observed by Paul Waldman in a 2003 op-ed for the Washington Post.

“This is an example of what scholars of rhetoric call enthymematic argumentation,” he wrote. “In an enthymeme, the speaker builds an argument with one element removed, leading listeners to fill in the missing piece.”

In failing to challenge the Bush administration on the issue, it granted it a free pass to repeat the lie over and over again, which, in turn, helped build enough public support for the administration to carry out its invasion – arguably the world’s worst foreign policy and humanitarian disaster in the modern age.

In the same way, the mainstream media allows Trump to repeat his lies without calling him a liar, allowing him a free pass to falsely claim he has “built the greatest economy in history”, “built the wall”, “rebuilt the military”, “drained the swamp” or “kept Americans safe” from a global pandemic. 

The media is still yet to accuse Trump of lying about the seriousness of COVID-19, even after he told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward that “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t like to create a panic.”

Instead of calling Trump a blatant liar, however, the media has chosen watered-down headlines such as ‘Trump Misled’ or ‘Trump Downplayed’.

“Every reporter covering Trump knows he’s a pathological liar,” says Boehlert. “It’s just that they have to play word games conveying that to news consumers because artificial newsroom barriers have been constructed.”

So, at the same time as Trump attacks mainstream media outlets and serious journalists as “horrible liars” and the “enemy of the American people”, the media is responding by benignly describing his thousands of deadly and threatening lies as “misleading” or “baseless statements”.

How is this a fair contest in the fight to save democracy from a man wilfully sabotaging one democratic norm and institution after another? 

It is not. And democracy cannot withstand such an upside-down reality.


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