The following is a news analysis and commentary.
As some reporters unequivocally declare Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to be “wrong” when he claimed thousands in New Jersey celebrated the Sept. 11, 2001 Islamic extremist terrorist attacks, I observe with more than a passing interest.
My interest isn’t in the presidential candidates; it’s in the news media’s conduct.
One news outlet dubbed Trump “the post truth 2016 candidate,” lifting a propaganda phrase passed along by the usual suspects. If one didn’t know better, one might think Hillary Clinton’s supporters among propagandists, astroturfers and the news media know she polls weakest when it comes to honesty, so they’re on a mission to reduce her strongest Republican competition to equal footing.
If voters can be convinced that Trump and Ben Carson are liars, then those candidates are less likely to attack Clinton’s own dubious relationship with the truth…
It may not be a conscious thought on the part of some reporters; more of a reflexive response. Maybe they constitute the post truth news media.
If you’ve read my New York Times bestseller Stonewalled, you know that I’m a fan of an intellectual exercise I call the Substitution Game. It involves comparing how the press treats similar events or people depending on how the reporter or news organization feels about the issue or the newsmaker.
In the case of Trump–thoroughly despised by so many in politics and the news media–his claim about cheering Muslims has been widely dissected for days. Reporters sometimes gleefully challenge him directly, aggressively and repeatedly.
Trump’s claim “defies basic logic,” says one report. “No news reports exist…” declares another, as if an event cannot have occurred, by definition, unless it was played on the news.
In the meantime, politicians who are better liked by the news media get a relative pass on statements that could arguably merit the same brand of scrutiny and analysis as Trump’s.
For example, President Obama claims mass shootings only happen in the U.S.–as he stands in Paris where there was a mass shooting about two weeks earlier. He claims to have met his green energy goals even “quicker” than expected –never mind the instances where the goals weren’t met. He calls the U.S. “the largest country” (Canada and Russia are bigger; China and India have more people). And all of that was just at his December 1 press conference at the Paris climate change summit.
The intent is not to pick on President Obama. To be sure, there is context for the questionable comments. But the point is: reporters do not chew on them for days upon end. They don’t constantly pick arguments with Mr. Obama or demand he apologize. In fact, for the most part, reporters seem simply not to notice.
Reporters may believe it’s untrue or unlikely that thousands in New Jersey cheered-on the World Trade Center attacks. They may not know anybody who participated in such a thing and they may not be able to locate videotape of it. But that’s quite different than knowing, unequivocally, that it didn’t happen.
Knowing that it didn’t happen would require a magical mix of omniscience and clairvoyance. Reporters who claim to know that it didn’t happen are committing a journalistic error more serious than the offense of which they accuse Trump.
Assuming for the sake of argument that Trump’s or Carson’s stories were definitively proven to be fabricated, it’s difficult to argue that would be more significant or indicative of their leadership abilities than the missteps of one of their opponents: Hillary Clinton. Yet reporters tend not to question her fabrications or misstatements with the same determination and persistence.
Clinton’s Honesty Issue
For the sake of brevity, we’ll review two of the most notable examples: 1. Clinton claimed we were shot at by snipers on a trip to Bosnia when she was First Lady (I was covering the trip for CBS News). Nothing even remotely close to sniper fire happened. 2. As secretary of state, Clinton publicly blamed the deadly Benghazi terrorist attacks on demonstrators inspired by a YouTube video, even though the best information was to the contrary (and she privately told her family the truth).
Substitution Game: With Clinton the lead Democrat running for president, are reporters engaging in days of passionate arguments with her about her false sniper fire claim insisting over and over, as they did with Trump, “It didn’t happen,” “It’s just plain wrong,” “Are you delusional?” or “It never happened”?
Have the same reporters criticized Clinton as secretary of state for misleading the public on Benghazi, demanding she “issue an apology”? Have they engaged in endless one on one debates with her for falsely claiming there were no classified emails on the private server on which she conducted the public’s business?
Couldn’t it be argued that Clinton was a post truth candidate long before Trump?
As reporters set aside their traditional role as fact seekers and veer into advocacy, they find themselves on a slippery journalistic slope.
There’s nothing wrong with reporting on skepticism of Trump’s (or other candidates’) claims. But to present Trump’s ideas about Muslim celebrations as the ravings of a lunatic requires dismissing, cherry picking, weighting or ignoring evidence.
In 2001, there were worldwide reports of relatively small groups of Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks; some of them in the United States. Substitution Game: When CBS News anchor Dan Rather told CBS late night host David Letterman there were reports of celebrations by Muslims at home, there was no collective outcry from reporters demanding an apology from Rather or Letterman. Only when Trump suggested the same.
Substitution Game: When the Washington Post reported allegations of people “seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river,” nobody demanded the newspaper issue apologies or corrections. Only when Trump made his allegations.
When CNN and the Los Angeles Times reported on Muslims overseas in East Jerusalem celebrating the 9/11 attacks; and when Snopes.com reported that “journalists were threatened for capturing images of Palestinian celebrations, making real footage of the event harder to obtain,” and when the Foreign Press Association of Israel reported that “thousands filled the streets to celebrate” in the West Bank town of Nablus to celebrate the 9/11 bombings, and that “armed police blocked camera crews from photographing the rally,” the news wasn’t met with wild disbelief.
“The images of exuberant, cheering Palestinians – some of them children and teens – when they heard news of the tragedies angered and horrified people worldwide,” said one report at the time. Another said, “TV stations everywhere were broadcasting footage of revelers in the streets of Jerusalem and Nablus, in refugee camps and in coffee shops. Some joyously fired rifles in the air, laughed, handed out sodas and candy and made signs of victory with their fingers.” Others said that Palestinian Authority officials “phoned TV stations and other media to caution them their safety would be in jeopardy if they aired the [celebratory] segments.” U.S. News and World Report asked, “Why did so many inhabitants of the long Muslim ‘street,’ stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, appear to be overjoyed by what Osama bin Laden’s henchmen had accomplished?”
As the facts have been fleshed out, some reporters have found themselves in the awkward position of having to repeatedly redefine their criticism of Trump’s statement. At first, they scoffed at the notion that anybody celebrated the 9/11 attacks. But when overseas video surfaced, they narrowed their criticism and scoffed at the idea that there were celebrations specifically in New Jersey. But when multiple witnesses and accounts about New Jersey surfaced, they narrowed their criticism further and said it couldn’t have been “thousands.”
See how it works? Each time their narrative is undermined, they simply reframe the argument to avoid the appearance that they’ve had to concede anything.
When it comes to Trump’s 9/11 celebration comments, the news media’s conduct may not matter to people who dislike Trump; in fact, they may cheer it on.
But someday, the post truth news media might set its sights on somebody or something you care about.