Trump, The Press, And How To Treat A Liar

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Another day, another Donald Trump lie about the 9/11 terror attacks.

Appearing on Face the Nation, Republican frontrunner Trump told host John Dickerson that prior to the attacks, the wives of the 9/11 hijackers "knew exactly what was going to happen" and were flown "back to Saudi Arabia" days before the hijacked plane strikes.

This is complete nonsense. As The Washington Post explained, "There is no support for Trump's claims ... virtually all of the hijackers were unmarried." And anyone who followed news of the attacks, and the subsequent years-long investigation, ought to know that. But on Face the Nation, Dickerson didn't flinch when Trump floated his latest 9/11 lie; Dickerson didn't question Trump's absurd claim. 

Then following his CBS appearance, the New York Times reported that Trump was "fuzzy" on his 9/11 facts and that the wives tale didn't "align" with "the timeline and details of the hijacking of the planes." Additionally, the Times suggested Trump was simply "having trouble keeping some details straight about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks." 

Incredibly, nowhere in the dispatch did The Times explain that the Trump wives story represents bad fiction. (i.e. Most of the 9/11 terrorists weren't even married.) 

This is getting ridiculous. And The Times really needs to drop this advance class in euphemisms and start explaining to news consumers exactly what Trump is doing: Lying.

All the time.

There's no question the press remains befuddled by Trump's staying power in the wake of his documented falsehoods. Many journalists seem to cling to the outdated and naïve notion that most Republican primary voters will turn on Trump once he was shown to be dishonest and slightly unhinged.  

The good news is journalists have not let Trump's lies go undetected. There has been aggressive fact-checking. But with his defining lying streak, Trump is trying to rewrite all the campaign rules and bowl over the media's watchdog role, which means polite fact-checking won't be enough. Where are the endless pieces looking into Trump's dark character and the search for clues as to what drives him to be such a cavalier liar? 

Let's be honest: Donald Trump is basically Alex Jones running for president. (Fittingly, Trump went on Jones' show last week for a mutual lovefest.) But news consumers are not having that portrait painted in the press.

Why?

We can draw a straight line from CNBC's Republican debate -- when candidates erupted in anger at the supposedly nasty, liberally biased questions -- and Trump's subsequent untruth that he saw video of "thousands and thousands" of people in Jersey City, N.J. celebrating when the World Trade Center towers fell on 9/11. The allegation was part of Trump's larger, anti-Muslim crusade to close down mosques in America.

We can draw a straight line because the two are inexorably linked and illuminate what's going on with Trump and the press today: There's a game of intimidation going on, and the press seems to be losing.  

Yes, the 9/11 claim has been repeatedly fact-checked and debunked. (How could it not be?) But in the two weeks after unfurling his demonstrably false and bigoted 9/11 lie, the press is still grappling with how to treat Trump's titanic whopper. And it's two weeks later and I still haven't seen this headline produced by a major news organization: "Trump Lies About Jersey City Reaction To 9/11."

Instead, I've seen these kinds of headlines that emphasize Trump's 9/11 "claim" and his "remarks": 

"Trump Says 9/11 Claims Being Proven" [Boston Herald]  

"Trump On Muslim Claim: 'I'm Not Going To Take It Back'" [CNN]

"Trump Sticks By Controversial 9/11 Remarks, Christie Says He's Wrong" [McClatchy Newspapers]

"Donald Trump Doubles Down On 9/11 Claim" [CBS]  

The fact is Trump lied about seeing "thousands" of Muslims celebrating. His spokeswoman has since said the number he cited wasn't important. But of course the number ("thousands") was the entire basis for the provocative claim.

If Trump had said he remembers seeing a "handful" of people celebrating on 9/11, nobody would've cared because extremists exist everywhere. "Thousands," though, implied a shared, cultural/criminal experience among Muslims in Jersey City. "Thousands" implied a fifth column plotting against the United States; a sprawling, dangerous faction of traitors who likely needed to be locked up.

It's not just coverage of the 9/11 lie that's lacking and timid. 

From the Chicago Tribune on the controversy surrounding Syrian refugees (via Nexis, emphasis added):

Instead, several criticized Obama's plan to allow some 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. over the next year.

Trump, at a rally in Beaumont, Texas, said Obama would allow 250,000 refugees in and called that idea "lunacy."

In the first sentence, the Tribune noted Obama's plan is to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. In the second sentence, the Tribune noted Trump didn't like Obama's plan because it would allow in 250,000 refugees. But the Tribune article never acknowledged that Trump's figures are bogus.

I understand most political journalists often view the L word ("liar") as the ultimate taboo, and there's just no way polite reporters can call politicians liars. "The most impolite candidate in American political history relies on the politeness of his interviewers to get away with lying," noted MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell.

But guess what? There's nothing wrong, or incendiary, or biased about using "liar" when it's accurate. Even when the liar is today's GOP frontrunner. In fact, especially when the liar is a political frontrunner eying the White House.

It's clear that Trump's taking advantage of press etiquette and its firm reluctance to call him what he is, a congenital liar:

*Trump claims the United States is about to take in 250,000 Syrian refugees.

False.

*Trump promotes a claim that black people are responsible for most white homicides.

False.

*Trump says there are up to 34 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

False.

*Trump claims the "real" unemployment rate is up to 42 percent when counting those who stopped looking for work.

False.

*Trump says he got to know Russian President Vladimir Putin "very well" because they appeared on 60 Minutes on the same night.

False. (The interviews were recorded in different countries.)

*Trump says the U.S. has "the highest tax rate anywhere in the world."

False.

Again, the good news, as the links above indicate, is that those lies have been fact-checked.

But my guess is any of those fabrications would not only have been a game-changer for a prominent Democratic candidate, it would likely have been a game-ender in the eyes of the Beltway press. Lies like that would have signaled Hillary Clinton, for instance, was unfit for office and pundits would've have hammered that point relentlessly.  

Remember last summer when Clinton gave an interview and said she and her husband were "dead broke" when they left the White House in early 2001. And remember the media eruption that her (accurate) statement produced, as pundits and reporters spent days and even weeks castigating Clinton for what they claimed was an erroneous claim?

Clinton told the truth about a rather trivial matter and she got pummeled in the press. Trump tells an outrageous lie about a deadly serious topic and the press can't quite figure out what to call it. (Tellingly, I haven't seen any Beltway media declarations about how they're poised to "take down" Trump, the way it proudly stood poised to "take down" Clinton last summer.)

Everyone agrees we've entered a whole new world with the Trump candidacy, and specifically with Republican voters' refusal to penalize him for spinning provable fabrications on a daily basis. It's a brand new world on the campaign trail for Trump and the press. And so far, and Trump is winning.

Posted In
Elections
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