How should the media respond when a Presidential candidate is caught lying? I don’t mean the small political prevarications that all politicians engage in — I refer to the uniquely outsized bullshit that has been dominating this election cycle.
So far, the mainstream press has been doing a mostly terrible job. However, that may be changing. To wit: Presidential candidate Donald Trump held a news conference Friday morning, where he:
1) Promoted his commercial interests in a hotel;
2) Admitted Barack Obama was born in United States;
3) Blamed the birther movement on Hilary Clinton.
Like so much else this election season, the media has been flummoxed in responding to such Trumpian absurdities like these. While some news outlets have acquitted themselves well – the Washington Post’s deep dive into Trump’s fabricated claims of charitable donations stands out – most of his unprecedented stream of falsities, exaggerations and outright lies has twisted them into knots.
For the first time, a major media outlet responded to the Trump modus operandi appropriately. The New York Times called out his prevarications with an intelligent parry and counter-thrust, responding to the candidate’s histrionic absurdities with proper journalistic clarity. Online late in the afternoon, they published the column Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic; in print the next day it was an above-the-fold, front page headline for the Saturday paper.
Michael Barbaro’s blistering analysis of the Trump birther issue was one of the first to not dance around the truth. Rather than engage in the usual genteel contortions to not challenge the falsehoods of a major candidate when responding to an outright lie, the writer placed Trump’s words into proper context. The result was a spectacularly accurate assessment of an historically important lie.
Perhaps even more important, the “paper of record” unwittingly created a template for other journalists wrestling with the unique challenges of covering Trump’s many fabrications. (I have found such templates to be helpful in the past).
Here is that template; journalists covering the campaign are encouraged to copy and paste this for future use.
Template for Reporters Covering Donald Trump
Trump false statement
Identify history of prior false claims, by listing lies in Chronological order
2011: Tells a lie [insert description]
2012: Still a lie when it was repeated [insert description]
2014: Still lying [insert description]
2016: Amazingly, lying still [insert description]
Contextualize how Trump managed to never get called out on the lie; reference the social impact of these false statements, including overtones of racism.
Point out facts demonstrating to any rational person Trump’s statements were obvious lies prior to listed dates.
Reference Trump’s embrace of conspiracy, use flowery language to describe the toxicity of the lie. Mention how good minded associates of his are embarrassed by it.
Point out how he worked to “mainstream” a fringe falsehood.
Social media reference, where facts do not matters.
Explain how the lie was repeated on live television, unchallenged by fact-checking.
Reference the various lightweight (i.e., non-news) shows where the lie was repeated, without serious challenges from lightweight anchors.
Rhetorical questions about motivations: Media attention? Racism? Cynicism? Calculated political stunt?
Point out how his aides and advisors say he has moved on, even as he keeps repeating the lie.
Reference his skillful manipulation of television.
Describe the lie being replaced with an even more bizarre new deception.
Describe the narcissism involved.
Reference the lies with interesting turns of phrase: “casual elasticity with the truth;” and “exhausted an army of fact-checkers;” and “insidious, calculated calumny.”
Repeat reference to underlying racism coursing through the lie.
Use an Obama quote to show Trump’s lack of eloquence or statesmanship.
– End –
Journalists should save this template for future usage. (PDF)
When you are confronted with a pathological liar running for public office, you should respond with context and history, with literary flourishes and honesty.
Each and every bizarre falsehood that challenges the fabric of our democracy – be it about his income or his taxes, or about the charitable gifts he never was party to or the litigation he was, about how if he loses, the election must be rigged, this is how the reporters covering the campaign should respond.