By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
After two-and-a-half years in office, the press is still befuddled by how to cover Donald Trump. On July 14, the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote, “We shouldn’t rise to his bait, but how can we not? If we ignore him, we normalize his reckless behavior, and that’s even worse.”
But that’s a false dichotomy, media critic Jay Rosen, noted on Twitter. And a few weeks later, the El Paso massacre showed it wasn’t a dichotomy at all: repeating and amplifying Trump’s hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric helped normalize it so much that 20 people lay dead as a result—and two more have died since.
The shooter’s manifesto specifically echoed the same lying language Trump has used repeatedly in his campaign rallies and on Twitter—the language of “invasion” used to misrepresent civilians fleeing violence as a military threat. Most notably, in the run-up to the midterms last year, Trump repeatedly portrayed a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers—mostly women and children—as a military threat—a threat that magically disappeared on election day. In addition to being civilians fleeing violence, they had formed into a caravan for defensive reasons—for greater safety in numbers on a perilous journey.
Misrepresenting them as a military threat, which Trump did repeatedly, was a monstrous, multi-faceted, ultimately lethal lie. The media did far more to amplify and spread than it did to question, warn against or condemn.
After the massacre, Trump naturally blamed the media alone: “Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years,” he tweeted. But the main failing has been in mishandling Trump —taking his bait and spreading his message because they only see two options, both of which normalize him in different ways.
“These are not the only choices,” Rosen said. He proceeded to describe five alternatives the press can take: you can change the way you cover him, you can focus elsewhere (on those he’s hurting) while still describing his actions, you can report his lies in a “truth sandwich,” treat his gaslighting as an issue or beat in itself, and ground 2020 coverage in “a transparent and public agenda that derives from a creative act of listening,” a model first developed by the Charlotte Observer in 1992.
It’s useful to describe these, to make the media’s untaken options clear. But they aren’t the only ones, and Trump alone is not the problem. The problem is a far-reaching attack on democracy, including the very notion of shared public understanding, on which democracy depends.
In light of the El Paso massacre, and recent social science research, I’ve added six more options. Four of them expand on Rosen’s gaslighting proposal, to deal with other signature Trump forms of deception, while two build further on the public agenda idea: one built on mass (non-elite) public opinion priorities, the other treating Trump and his allies’ erosion of democratic norms as a distinct new beat. All in all, there are many ways for the press to escape from the box that they’ve put themselves into. They can choose as many of them as they wish—and you, as citizens, can push them to do better.
#1: Rosen suggests, the media can simply stop supplying Trump with oxygen by suspending normal relations with the Trump government. Instead of focusing primary coverage on the White House, “Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim,” Rosen wrote before Trump took office. “Outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant.”
The different ways in which Trump has decimated cabinet departments, with only sporadic media coverage, show just how wise this advice was. In the same vein, Rosen noted, CNN could simply stop covering his speeches live: there are simply too many lies to deal with otherwise. Rather than a single one-size-fits-all choice for everyone to take, Rosen wrote, “Each newsroom has to start asking: what game do we stop participating in this government?”
#2: A second option Rosen suggested, was coverage that reports Trump’s actions, “but he is not the main character,” and he cited an example brought to his attention by Antonia Hylton, a reporter/producer for Vice News on HBO.
“We spend way more time with immigrants and lawyers and in courtrooms than we do circling his orbit in D.C. And it’s paid off,” Hylton said.
When asked for an example, Hylton linked to a 30-minute documentary, Zero Tolerance.
“[We] followed one Guatemalan family’s tough journey from separation to reunification last summer,” she said. “Center the experiences of the family over administration spin.”
This is one example of a very rich journalistic tradition. Documentary filmmakers have used this kind of model forever. Pacifica’s weekday news program Democracy Now! has taken the same approach for more than 20 years, regardless of which party was in the White House. Independent journalists from George Seldes and I.F. Stone down to the alternative press of today have routinely worked this way. It can be done.
#3: If Rosen’s second approach was steeped in history, his third option was the opposite — a new idea called the “truth sandwich,” proposed by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, specifically suited to Trump’s flood of false statements. But the basis is anything but new: First impressions matter. How you broach a subject frames the way it’s seen. And repeating claims makes them seem stronger, regardless of what you might say about them. So, rather than start by repeating Trump’s false claims, first explain the big picture about what’s really going on, then present Trump’s claim — which need not be a direct quote — and then debunk it: Truth/lie/truth: A “truth sandwich.”
The big picture on almost any subject Trump likes is invariably the opposite of what he proposes. So put that first: immigrant crime rates are significantly lower than crime rates for native-born Americans and illegal immigration has been net negative since the great financial crash in 2008. There is no crisis on either count.
Trump’s job-growth numbers his first two years are below Obama’s for the last two years of his term, he’s done nothing to fundamentally change the economy he inherited, except to shift more of the benefits to the rich; global warming is real, and oil company documents dating back to the 1970s prove that they’ve known it all along, so claims that it’s debatable or a hoax are the result of decades of deliberate lying. This is how any coverage of Trump’s lies about his favorite subjects should be introduced: Set the stage with cold, hard, documented facts before turning to discuss Trump’s latest lie, then debunk it with specific contradictory facts.
Lakoff got a buzz of attention for the idea this past year, but it’s far more popular with social media critics than it is with the corporate media journalists in whose hands it would matter most. But it’s never too late to change and never too early to put 2020 campaign coverage on a solid factual foundation.
#4: Fourth on Rosen’s list was the creation of a special kind of coverage—the “Gaslight Desk,” based on the recognition “that sometimes the news he made today is meant only to bring opacity to news he made yesterday.”
Gaslighting is lying so deep it aims at destroying your faith in your perceptions—in your own sanity. “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” Trump said in a speech last summer. That’s a gaslighter’s core message: Believe me, not your lying eyes.
Rosen gave the example of Trump falsely claiming to have pushed back against his crowd chanting “send her back,” when he had actually been quite pleased, as the chant lasted 13 seconds. This sort of claim, “exists only to confuse and erase earlier reports,” he noted.
“By presenting — and fact-checking — these claims as if they’re just the next round, journalists co-author this confusion.”
#5: This last point is crucial: fact-checking may be sufficient for ordinary false claims (though that’s debatable), but it’s clearly insufficient when the point is not just to deny certain facts, but to attack the whole framework of making sense of the world. Of course, one could handle gaslighting using Lakoff’s “Truth Sandwich”—and that’s what the Gaslight Desk should do. But handing it off to its own special department is a way of further underscoring just what’s going on—an additional act of accurately framing precisely what Trump is up to, heightening public awareness of how profoundly Trump is attacking public understanding.
Gaslighting isn’t the only trick Trump uses so much it deserves its own desk. There are four other candidates, two of which are especially strong, that are similarly distinctive to require special identification and treatment. These were identified by George Lakoff just before Trump’s inauguration as the main ways Trump uses Twitter: pre-emptive framing, to define how issues or events are described; diversion (aka distraction), to shift attention away from troubling stories and topics; deflection, to shift blame from himself onto others; and trial balloon, to test public reaction.
Diversion and deflection have both been used so frequently in a laser-like manner that scientists have been able to study them quantitatively, as I reported for Salon on Aug. 4. Deflection has been used to blame “fake news” in defense of Trump’s own prodigious lying, while diversion has been used to distract attention from the Mueller investigation, as major media outlets— the New York Times and ABC World News Tonight—have repeatedly reduced coverage following Trump’s distractive tweets. There’s every reason to believe these strategies are effective more generally, even though it’s difficult to measure these more diversified uses and their impacts. The same can be said for preemptive framing and trial balloons as well. Hence, the following four desks are all called for as well—either separately or in a cohesively shared format.