[The battle against not the “fake news” but using the term itself; false equivalency lives on and on]
— RECENT HEADLINES —
“Bob Corker Confirms Senate GOP’s Secret Belief: President Is Dangerously Unfit for Office” (10/8/2017)
“Trump Reneges on DACA Deal Struck With Chuck (Schumer) and Nancy (Pelosi)” (10/8/2017)
“Harvey Weinstein Fired From Own Company After History of Sexual Harassment Exposed” (10/8/2017)
“President Extends Twitter Attacks on Sen. Bob Corker With Bald-Faced Lies” (10/9/2017)
“Trump Continues Transparent Cover-Up of Bush-League Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief” (10/11/2017)
“Tillerson’s ‘Moron’ Comment Prompted by Trump’s 10-Fold Increase in Nukes Request” (10/11/2017)
“Trump Hints at Pulling NBC News’ Broadcast License Over ‘10-Fold Increase’ Report” (10/11/2017)
“President Challenges Sec. of State to IQ Test in Response to Tillerson’s ‘Moron’ Charge” (10/10/2017)
“4 New Puerto Rican Deaths Attributed to Waterborne Illness” (10/11/2017)
“Vanity Fair: Trump Confidants Say He’s ‘Unstable,’ ‘Losing a Step,’ and ‘Unraveling’” (10/11/2017)
“Thousands Evacuate Deadly Calif. Wildfires; 180-Plus People Still Missing” (10/11/2017)
“Trump Threatens Aid Cuts to Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief Because of Its Debt” (10/12/2017)
I recently read Matthew Continetti’s October 7, 2017, article:
“Pop Goes the Liberal Media Bubble: Trump Drives the Mainstream Press to Abandon the Pretense of Objectivity”
It appeared first in the Washington Free Beacon (of which he is editor-in-chief), then the National Review, both respected conservative publications. Indeed, my firebrand ninth-grade social studies and government teacher, Gerald Eggen, taught us that the National Review was the prominent conservative magazine in America, the New Republic was the preeminent liberal voice, and we students needed to know the difference. (Sadly, in the 21st century, the latter seems to have fallen from grace among many liberal thinkers.)
Mainstream Media: “Somewhere Between the Hysterical and the Lunatic”
The title of Continetti’s article tells the reader everything about his perspective. Early in the piece, he continues to establish his bias (and that’s … OK; — thanks to Stuart Smalley aka Al Franken):
“The overall tone of coverage of this president and his administration is somewhere between the hysterical and the lunatic. … The mode of knee-jerk disgust … prevents the mainstream media from distinguishing between the genuinely interesting stories and the false, partisan, and hackwork ones.”
First, there is always a problem when conservatives refer to the “mainstream press” or “mainstream media.” The labels are so wide as to include many outlets’ journalism practices that do NOT apply to, say, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Pundits like Continetti create much leeway for themselves by criticizing the mainstream media without defining it. As I address some of his points, I will define it as The Washington Post and The New York Times (or Post/Times for short), at least concerning print media. (If he’s talking television, I’ll include ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, CNN, and MSNBC. Since he often appears on the “liberal” MSNBC, Matthew must begrudge them some credibility.)
Second, inherent in Mr. Continetti’s article title and content is the canard of the mainstream media being synonymous with “the liberal press.” Ask Bill and Hillary Clinton if the Post/Times went easy on them during their campaign trials and tribulations and during many stretches of Bill’s presidency. It’s because of the mainstream media that references such as the blue dress, Hillary’s emails, the meaning of is, Benghazi, and so many more are now ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness.
A) Use of False Equivalency
Third, Matthew Continetti’s premise begs for a discussion of false equivalency. This term has been thrown around (and maligned) a lot in the past decade. My definitive examples follow: A) There is the use of it (commonly by Republicans); and B) There is the attempted foisting of it upon journalists and news outlets in the name of neutrality.
“An illustration of [false equivalency] was when many conservatives tried to equate these two things: 1) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) using the term Negro (without any irony) to describe African-Americans in a private conversation; and 2) former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) opining, at Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) open-to-reporters 100th birthday party, that America would be better off if Thurmond (and his platform of institutional segregation) had won the 1948 presidential election.
“OK, Reader. You just heard the comparison of one faux pas to the other. Do you say to yourself, ‘Yeah, Reid was just as guilty as Lott was, and Reid should also resign’? Or do you take an extra few seconds to actively listen to what you just heard? You might then say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. Harry Reid — who played a key role in drafting the first black U.S. president to run for the office — used an outdated though proper-for-its-time ethnic term, an innocent mistake for an old [white] guy. Reid exhibited no real bigotry. But Lott joked, the way a joke indicates one’s true beliefs, that a President Strom Thurmond (ergo, legal segregation) would have been better for our country. Now that’s real racism, and he was appropriately forced to resign.’
“If you said these two examples are NOT equivalent, you just reasoned in a critically thoughtful manner.”
(Ersin, Tom; Barack vs. the Anti-PC: Laying the Groundwork for a 2016 Donald Trump Presidential Run; 2017.)
In his article, Continetti can’t stop himself from invoking one of Donald Trump’s favorite canards (sorry, I simply had to use that word again). He accuses highly respected economist Paul Krugman of circulating “fake news” — about cholera breaking out in Puerto Rico — in support of an effort to make the incompetent hurricane relief effort “Trump’s Katrina.” In reality, Krugman realized his factual mistake and posted a retraction within six hours. This is not fake news. This is an error and a prompt correction. To label it fake news is an attempt to falsely equate it with Trump’s consistent efforts to invalidate any media story he doesn’t like (the vast majority of which are accurate).
Moreover, even using the term fake news in a non-ironic way (unless quoting Jon Stewart’s description of his old Comedy Central broadcast The Daily Show) demonstrates the user’s implicit agreement with Trump that legitimate media outlets intentionally and persistently lie in their reporting about the president. This is dangerous rhetorical drivel coming from a conservative journalist purporting to be a truth-teller. It supports Mr. Trump’s authoritarian attempts to delegitimize the Fourth Estate as a whole and as wholly imperative to democracy.
The next thing you know, The Donald will try to shut down news outlets he doesn’t like. Oh, wait — he tweet-threatened NBC News with pulling their broadcasting license just yesterday. Worse yet, he said they were as bad as CNN.
B) Attempts to Foist False Equivalency on Journalists
The other example of false equivalency involves the demand that journalists maintain strict neutrality even when the two (or more) sides of the story obviously do not carry equal veracious weight.
Continetti chides mainstream journalists for being “trapped in a condition of perpetual outrage, seizing on every rumor of discontent and disagreement, [and] reflexively denouncing Trump’s every utterance and action.” He was “stunned” to read Pew Research Center reporting that in the president’s first 60 days in office, 62 percent of news stories leaned negative against Trump compared to Obama’s (20 percent), Bush’s (28 percent), and Clinton’s (28 percent) first two months.
“This, at a time when the stock market is at record highs, the economy is at full employment, and Americans are upbeat about the recovery. The president’s inability to register majority approval in opinion polls may be unprecedented, but so is the amount of negative coverage he has received. Perhaps there’s a connection.”
You’re damn right there’s a connection, Matthew. The president’s unprecedented low approval ratings are directly proportional to his unprecedented poor behavior and job performance. Sure, Obama’s economic recovery is still kicking butt (in spite of Trump) nine months after he left office. But even if you mistakenly credit Donald for the economic good times, that does not offset the incompetence, immaturity, and immorality he has demonstrated consistently through 60, 180, or 270 days in.
Apparently, by Continetti’s standards, President Trump should be recording at least 50 percent positive media coverage all the time. If that were the case, it would represent a false neutrality or false equivalency. If the mainstream media did that, they would be lying. They would be reporting from behind, what he calls, a pre-Trump “pretense of objectivity and detachment.”
This is what makes Mr. Continetti’s longing for equivalency false. If neutral means negative coverage must be balanced by a commensurate amount of positive coverage, then, in Trump’s case, the media would have to lie to be neutral. Because President Trump’s negative-positive ratio of performance is nowhere near 50-50.
In fact, the figure of 62 percent negative coverage in Trump’s first 60 days seems stunningly low to me. The media must have been overcompensating to be fair because the president caught them off guard with his colossal boorishness and incompetence. The guy has been a dangerous failure. Of course Obama’s and Bush’s and Clinton’s negative numbers were way below that — they didn’t scare the bejesus out of women, minorities, and U.S. allies. It is astonishing how my attitude toward George W. Bush has softened since President Trump’s inauguration.
Astonishing and frightening. Donald Trump has changed the outrage paradigm (another good word). He is rapidly desensitizing us to his outrageousness and mendacity, his prevaricatum verbosium. And this is his strategy. Trump cares nothing about policy or — to quote Sen. Al Franken quoting the late Sen. Paul Wellstone — “(politics should be about) making people’s lives better.” For President Trump, it’s all about ego, self-aggrandizement, and playground put-downs of anyone who does not succumb to his demand for sycophantic loyalty — national security and making people’s lives better be damned.
“Trump Does Not Change”
“Trump does not change, but his critics in the media have. Their feelings of revulsion toward him have deepened. Their eagerness to oppose him has become more acute. The scope of their vision has constricted to include only Trump: what he says, tweets, and does.”
Mr. Continetti is right about one thing: “Trump does not change.” So much for the president’s better angels maturing him into the job. Conversely, President Trump does change — he’s getting worse over time. He is enamored with his apparent Teflon image, which will certainly have its limits.
Of course journalists’ “feelings of revulsion toward him have deepened.” Of course “their eagerness to oppose him has become more acute.” Journalists are human beings who are legitimately afraid of the damage this president has done, and what he will ultimately do if not stopped. Journalistic integrity and great investigative reporting are not guaranteed to abort the Trumpian carnage, but they are our best hope.
I will be deeply concerned if the overall coverage of Mr. Trump EVER gets to 50-50, negative-positive, because that is so far from reality. If we let the desensitization set in, we’re in grave danger. (“You said grave danger?” “Is there any other kind?”) Yes, journalists must stay laser-focused on what Trump “says, tweets, and does.”
More Sen. Bob Corker
Last week I highlighted Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) open criticism from a highly respected, clear-thinking Republican. Mr. Corker is chair of the Senate foreign relations committee. He was an early supporter of Trump’s candidacy and presidency. He was on the short lists for vice president and secretary of state. And he was one of just several senators to forge personal relationships with the president and his family.
Within the first several months of Mr. Trump’s tenure, Sen. Corker began reconsidering his position. His words are credible because of his early support and because Donald respected Bob enough to consider him for those two high-level positions. And — they were buds. It’s important to note that the president did not double-cross or disrespect Mr. Corker before the senator began his criticism. Bob simply started seeing reality. The president, however, is disrespecting Bob Corker these days.
Though Corker voiced some damning criticism a week ago last Wednesday, the president apparently wasn’t motivated until the following Sunday morning, by a Fox News broadcast, to respond via Twitter:
“Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election in Tennessee. I said ‘NO’ and he dropped out (said he could not win without … my endorsement). He also wanted to be Secretary of State, I said ‘NO THANKS.’ He is also largely responsible for the horrendous Iran Deal! … Hence, I would fully expect Corker to be a negative voice and stand in the way of our great agenda. Didn’t have the guts to run!”
(Trump, Donald, R-N.Y., U.S. president; Twitter post; 10/8/2017.)
Note that all three of the president’s tweeted declarations have been debunked, one by public record. Sen. Corker responded:
“It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”
(Corker, Bob, R-Tenn., U.S. senator, foreign relations committee chair; Twitter post; 10/8/2017.)
Later that Sunday, October 8, 2017, Sen. Corker participated in a New York Times telephone interview with reporter Jonathan Martin. The interview was on the record and knowingly recorded by representatives for both parties. In it, Corker apparently confirms what most GOP senators have secretly acknowledged for months: that President Trump is dangerously unfit for office, that most Republican legislators agree with this, and that Trump needs to be controlled for the security of our nation.
“Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here. … Of course, they understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”
“[President Trump is treating his office like] a reality show … like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something … [his reckless threats could set the nation] on the path to World War III.”
“[The president] concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation. I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of [senior administration officials] trying to contain him.”
“A lot of people think that there is some kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ act underway [with North Korea], but that’s just not true. … I know [Trump] has hurt, in several instances, he’s hurt us as it relates to negotiations that were underway by tweeting things out.”
“I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true. You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does.”
Clearly, President Trump is the one who is “somewhere between the hysterical and the lunatic,” not the mainstream press. I’m hoping and expecting more Republicans to follow Sen. Bob Corker’s brave lead until we have a healthy flow of GOP eye-opening. Matthew Continetti, mainstream media honesty by its nature precludes the foisting of false neutrality or equivalency on journalists. If the president consistently performs incompetently and unethically, the coverage will be lopsided. That is reality. That is integrity. That, 62 percent of us hope, will save our democracy. ■