Trump counts on reporters to chase his lies and distractions like dogs chase balls. They meet his expectations.
by George Lakoff Framelab Oct 30, 2018
Here’s a clear example of the degree to which many reporters — even great ones — fail to understand how Trump manipulates the media.
Carl Bernstein, one of the legendary Watergate reporters who took down the corrupt Nixon presidency, was interviewed by CNN’s Brian Stelter about Trump’s constant lies. Bernstein correctly observed Trump and his ilk are engaged in a “war on truth.” But then he suggested reporters counter Trump’s lies by dedicating more time and energy to examining whether they are true.
Said Bernstein: “When Trump talks, for instance, about voter fraud. . . we need to be doing stories about the reality of whether or not there is widespread voter fraud.”
This couldn’t be more wrong. If reporters dedicate time and energy to investigating whether known lies might be true, they will continue to cede control of the news cycle to Trump.
Trump’s “big lie” strategy is designed to exploit journalistic convention by providing rapid-fire “news” events for reporters to chase. Trump spews falsehoods in a blitzkrieg fashion, but the lies are only part of the game. What reporters continue to miss is the strategy behind the big lies: to divert attention from big truths. The technique is simple: create controversy and confusion around politically-charged topics to stoke his conservative base and distract from stories that harm Trump.
It’s a numbers game. The more he can get his key terms and images repeated in the media — even as “fact checks” — the more he wins. That’s just how our brains work. The more we hear about something, the more it sticks. Even if it’s not true. When I say “don’t think of an elephant,” it forces you to think of an elephant. Repeating lies, even to debunk them, helps spread and strengthen them. The scientific evidence is clear.
Trump’s most recent spate of large lies coincided with the shocking revelation Saudi Arabia dismembered and murdered (in that order) journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trapped in a terrible storyline — the President of the United States giving cover to a foreign leader who horrifically butchered a journalist — Trump started spewing new lies to change the subject.
He launched predictable attacks on immigrants, on California, on the voting process, on transgender people. He made entirely false claims about tax cuts. He counts on his political opponents to react passionately. He counts on reporters to chase his lies and distractions like dogs chase balls. Too often, they meet his expectations.
The lies and distractions will ramp up as Election Day draws near. And all of this is just practice for the outcome of the Mueller investigation. Just imagine the pile of weaponized lies, distortions and distractions Trump will begin hurling when the shoes start to drop on his criminal collusion.
Bernstein’s advice plays into Trump’s strategy. Trump wins by dictating the frame and keeping his fraudulent claims front-and-center.
This doesn’t mean reporters should ignore the president’s lies. It means they must be extremely cautious about spreading the substance of the lies, because that rewards his lying strategy.
We recommend using the “truth sandwich” method. And maybe it’s time to take Trump’s circus of lies off of the front page and put them in their own special section of the newspaper, perhaps with the comics and the horoscopes. Document them, but don’t give them the power to overshadow important news.
When Trump tells a big lie on any particular subject, it’s usually because he’s distracting from a big truth. The big truth he’s trying to cover up by making up lies about the election system is the massive voter suppression effort Republicans have undertaken. They are wiping voter rolls and doing everything they can to make it harder for people — especially people of color — to vote. Meanwhile, Trump uses his bully pulpit to accuse his opponents of doing exactly what he and his party are up to.
Trump’s success is rooted in the media’s tendency to amplify, rather than analyze, his tactics. Like a pickpocket who distracts your attention with one hand while the other hand takes your wallet, he knows what he’s doing. When Trump tries to keep them busy debunking sprees of lies, good reporters should pivot to focus on the relevant truth.
Faced with an authoritarian leader who uses lies as weapons, reporters must evolve to counter the threat. Protecting the truth requires more than fact checking. It demands reporters take into account the strategy behind Trump’s blitzkrieg of lies and refuse to fall for it.
Either you beat the strategy or the strategy beats you.