The ongoing challenge of covering Trump is playing out in front of your eyes

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Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s charge that Times news coverage has become “unmistakably anti-Trump” quickly prompted a well-earned rebuke from former Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to the effect that “being pro-truth should not be mistaken for being anti-Trump.”

This is hardly a new debate. When it comes to covering politicians and government officials who lie, there’s always been great tension within our major news organizations between the journalistic devotion to truth-telling and the self-inflicted fear of being perceived as taking sides. It’s the source of many of mainstream journalism’s greatest failures – and arguably led to Trump’s election.

But that tension has never been quite as front-and-center as it is now, with Trump’s constant assault on the truth, and his spread of misinformation, fear, and hatred.

In fact, it plays out every day on the pages of the Times and the Washington Post as journalists wrestle publicly with how to report on Trump while not serving as unwitting megaphones for deception.

Trump’s cabinet meeting on Wednesday presented precisely such a challenge, and led to mixed success.

Writing in the Washington Post, Anne Gearan correctly minced no words in the lede of her front-page story, calling the meeting a “a 95-minute stream-of-consciousness defense of his presidency and worldview, filled with falsehoods, revisionist history and self-aggrandizement.”

Over at the New York Times, meanwhile, national political reporter Michael Tackett was joined by full-time fact-checking reporter Linda Qiu on a page A12 story where they offered readers what they called “some takeaways and fact-checks.”

The New York Times approach – with its more overt fact-checking – was way more successful.

The Washington Post, for instance, simply declared:

Trump defended his push to fund his promised border wall, parrying complaints from Democrats who have called the wall immoral by remarking, “Then we have to do something about the Vatican, because the Vatican has the biggest wall of them all.”

The Times added some crucial context:

(Vatican City has walls, but they do not enclose the entire territory and visitors can easily enter some parts.)

The Post story was appropriately critical of Trump’s bizarre comments about Afghanistan:

Amid concerns within his own party about whether he will pull troops out of Afghanistan, Trump offered a discursive and somewhat inscrutable account of the fall of the Soviet Union, blaming it on the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But it then quoted him at some length, the only pushback coming from the observation that Trump was “breaking with the stance taken by past U.S. administrations that the invasion was an illegitimate power play against a neighboring nation.

The Times, by contrast, disputed Trump’s assertion that Russia “went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan” even though it had good reason to invade the country “because terrorists were going to Russia”:

(The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, beginning a “decade-long attempt by Moscow to subdue the Afghan civil war and maintain a friendly and socialist government on its border,” according to the State Department.)

The Times also fact-checked another Trump comment about Russia and Syria:

He protested that some characterized the withdrawal as aiding Russia, insisting that “they’re not happy.” (In fact, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria “correct.”)

The Washington Post reported this without any hint that it was not true:

He took credit for falling oil prices, arguing they were the result of phone calls he made to the leaders of oil-producing nations.

Readers were left to their own devices to determine if they were being lied to. They were.
Yes, after rising to a four-year high in October, oil prices plunged more than $30. But that was arguably due not to Trump phone calls but to two other factors:

  • His childishly-written statement expressing continued support for Saudi Arabia even after the grotesque premeditated ambush assassination of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi apparently ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; and
  • Fears about weaker oil demand amid a potential slowdown in the global economy due to persistent worries over how Trump’s trade wars could hit economic growth.

The Washington Post simply quoted this Trump inanity:

“They say I am the most popular president in the history of the Republican Party,” Trump said.

The New York Times added another crucial parenthetical:

(Actually, Mr. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans was 88 percent at 701 days into his term, according to Gallup, the same as President George W. Bush at the same point. Over all, Mr. Trump’s approval ratings among his own party have largely hovered below Mr. Bush’s.)

The Washington Post stenographically reported:

He defended his controversial negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by stating that if he had not reached out, there would have been a “big fat war in Asia.”

That is an absurd statement to leave unrefuted. It is lunatic alternate-universe fantasy.

Both papers allowed some of Trump’s most extreme hyperbole speak for itself, which I guess is OK.

From the Post:

Trump, who did not serve in the military and received draft deferments during the Vietnam War, suggested he would have made a good military leader himself.
“I think I would have been a good general, but who knows?” Trump said.

And:

He claimed that if he wanted to, he could have any government job in Europe and be popular there. He cast his unpopularity among European publics as a sign he is doing his job well.

The Times offered up:

Trump said he did not want to be critical of his predecessor; rather, he wanted to make the point that walls work. Drones and other technology, he argued, had more limited capacity. “I know more about drones than anybody,” he said.

And:

“I could be the most popular person in Europe,” he said. “I could run for any office if I wanted to.”

Both articles ended with arguably the most laugh-out-loud whopper of them all. From the Post:

The president, who frequently faces criticism for his light public schedule, also bemoaned the lack of credit he has received for what he views as the many accomplishments of his first two years.
“I have to tell you, it would be a lot easier if I didn’t do anything, if I just sat and enjoyed the presidency, like a lot of other people have done,” Trump said.

I sympathize. How do you even begin to refute such insanity?

Extra credit to the Washington Post, which noted the elephant in the room:

The Post called attention to the “large poster of himself evoking ‘Game of Thrones’ on the table before him.”

The Times’s Tackett, clearly recognizing his oversight, posted an item on Thursday all about the poster, noting that “Trump did not talk about the poster. Nor did any of his cabinet members seated around him, or even Vice President Mike Pence, who was sitting directly in front of it. And he made no connection to the date on the poster — two days before Election Day.”

Also see:

It’s time to start ignoring what Trump says – as much as possible

Political journalists need to stop stifling their outrage

The New York Times didn’t know what to make of Trump’s press conference; the Washington Post did

How the Los Angeles Times could beat the New York Times in Washington: By covering politics with a view from California instead of nowhere

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