Sixteen years before Jonathan Swift published “Gulliver’s Travels,” the essayist and clergyman wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
Now, every afternoon, the world is awash in nonstop nonsense from a mental Lilliputian who sees himself as a giant Brobdingnagian with skills as enormous as his ego. Exploiting the emergency that’s COVID-19, President Trump mounts virtual campaign rallies disguised as daily briefings in the White House.
At press time, CNN, Fox and MSNBC all carry them live, but at the urging of respected observers such as former ABC newsman Ted Koppel, CNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post and others stopped going to the staged briefings, though they monitor them for any news.
Why re-consider the coverage?
Trump spent months denying the crisis or worse, once saying, “We’ve never closed down the country for the flu. So you say to yourself, ‘What is this all about?.’” Trump had gone a year without news briefings, preferring controlled rallies on the road, then deciding to make this about his re-election, as the Los Angeles Times reported on March 30, revealing that Trump campaign advisers told him to “pay attention. You’re going to lose the election.”
His performances are different than briefings by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the distinction isn’t political parties, it’s track records and the substance they share. That’s the way it should be. It’s reminiscent of a former editor who, after I alerted him to a state representative’s local appearance, said not to go because “he’s a lawmaker who’d go to the opening of an envelope.”
Since Trump’s inauguration, he’s publicly lied more than 16,000 times, according to fact-checkers. That can’t even be compared to habitual liar Richard Nixon, who fellow Republican Barry Goldwater called “the most dishonest individual I ever met,” noting that the disgraced Nixon “lied to his wife, his family, his friends, longtime colleagues in the U.S. Congress, lifetime members of his own political party, the American people, and the world.” (A one-time Nixon “enemy,” Morton Halperin, said that Trump is “far worse than Nixon, certainly as a threat to the country.”)
Concerning the pandemic, Trump’s lied about the availability of tests and safety gear, promoted unproven treatments and his “stable genius,” attacked reporters, falsely accused hospitals of hoarding ventilators and claimed massive thefts of supplies without proof. Despite the relentless lying and exaggeration, cable coverage legitimizes such drivel as having value. Repeating falsehoods amplifies them and empowers liars.
On the other hand, it’s not illogical to show Trump in toto and let the public keep tabs on him and sort out the baloney from the reality (plus the diplomatic corrections by scientists walking on eggshells). It’s real life in real time.
Still, the litany of lies can exhaust and overwhelm the most civic-minded citizen, as Michiko Kakutani wrote in “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” and we’re tempted to surrender to “outrage fatigue” and become numb.
Americans stuck at home – literally a captive audience – are worried about health risks and seek news, not misinformation, disinformation and blather. Pathetically, Trump equates the public’s thirst for news with his popularity (which increased but still is less than half the country.) Citizens also desire reassurance or a sense of national unity. Instead, he brags about his audience size, akin to a prison cook boasting about the cuisine.
Of course, lies can be effective. A dishonest story reaches 1,500 people six times faster than a factual story, according to a 2018 study in Science magazine.
So: Responsible media decision-makers must reassess their approach, which hasn’t changed much since 2016 when Trump’s outlandish appearances were just free airtime. Without questioning to clarify assertions, coverage merely spoon-feeds claims by the powerful. That’s stenography, not journalism.
As Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay, falsehood by haste and uncertainty.”
It’s not censorship to report on newsworthy and verifiable moments instead of every second of the show. Media must cover science and facts, and more prominently feature doctors and nurses, mayors and governors, families and neighbors of the stricken.
If not, is it about ratings? Then relegate the briefings to a web site, like an online-only C-SPAN or shopping network. After all, using coverage as an uncritical bullhorn means networks care less about helping people understand what’s happening and more about boosting and ad revenue. Are they journalists or entertainers?
Unlike FDR’s radio “fireside chats” in the 1930s and ’40s, Trump’s briefings also don’t unify. Listeners hear what they want to – falsehoods or inspiration.
As Peorian Richard Pryor quipped, “Who are you going to believe – me or your lying eyes?”
Unfortunately, as the late French American poet Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”