In an essay yesterday for The Atlantic, Connor Friedersdorf tackles the question of media bias against Trump, particularly in light of his “Obama founded ISIS” claims. The thrust is that some people are upset that the media was deliberately twisting his words to be their most literal, and therefore their most easily disprovable. I’ll readily admit that when I saw the headline last week during a brief moment of internet connectivity, I rolled my eyes a bit, assuming (oddly, I know) that this was an obvious bit of rhetoric and the palpitations were of the clickbait variety.
Friedersdorf does a good job demolishing that, showing how Trump doubled and tripled down on it, and, most importantly, how he’ll say anything at any given time, to inflame some audiences and then claim he was doing no such thing, and it’s frankly disgusting of you to think otherwise, ok? The basic thrust is that Trump says so many outrageous and insane things (Ted Cruz’s loathsome father killed JFK) that the media has to evaluate everything like a policy statement, and debunk it as such.
It’s an interesting question about the role of the press, and to dig into it, I think it is helpful to look at Chicago politics in the 60s and 70s, at another straight-shooting authoritarian who frequently made no sense: Da Mare, Richard Daley.
Earl Bush, the long-serving press secretary for Richard J. Daley, wasn’t like most of the people surrounding the old man. He wasn’t a Bridgeport crony brought up in the rough-and-tumble world of South Side Irish politics, where loyalty and cunning were prized over book smarts. He was well-educated, and was considered to be “Daley’s translator.” He’s probably best remembered for chiding reporters who covered the mayor to play fair, in a way: “Don’t print what he said. Print what he meant.”
It is a line that’s easy to mock, but it actually raises some interesting questions. Daley was far from dumb, and was himself educated (putting himself through law school while climbing the machine ranks and raising a brood), but he had a tortured relationship with the language. What he meant to say often came out garbled, and nonsensical. So, for reporters covering him, what was there to do? On the one hand, they had a duty to convey the policies and politics of City Hall, and not just get a cheap laugh over a syntactical slip, the kind we all make when speaking, some more so than others. Reading the unedited transcript of nearly anyone can be cringeworthy. On the other hand, seeing the unvarnished mind of our political leaders is a service.
On the other hand, seeing the unvarnished mind of our political leaders is a service. We get to see how their minds work, or don’t, and how much they struggle to connect their talking points with any actual thought (think Marco Rubio here). Sometimes, you get a great quote out of it, one that seems more Freudian than Kinseyian. The best example of this is when Daley said of reports of police brutality in the city: “The policeman is not here to create disorder; he’s here to preserve disorder.” That seemed to encapsulate the role of the police in the racial powderkegs of the 1960s.
On the other hand…you know what he meant. Should reporters gleefully transcribe something that is the opposite of what he meant? The above quote seems to reveal a hidden truth, but that is metaphorical, and not legalistic. If Daley had said “I ordered the police to beat the hell out of the Negro” and then Earl Bush said “no no- he clearly meant to say ‘treat them well, the Negro'”, you print the former, for sure. But when it is just a slipup? Is making it clear what a subject means a distortion, or is it observance of the truth?
I personally think it is the duty of any reporter to make sure that they print what is meant, even if they report what is said. But what happens when you have a man like Trump? To say he’s a liar is far too faint. All politicians lie (especially when they say they will never lie to you). It’s part of the job. By definition, you have to please far too many competing constituencies to always tell the truth 100% of the time. It’s impossible. And to an extent, we all know that’s acceptable.
But with Trump is is a different thing altogether. He isn’t so much lying as running an entirely 100% truthless campaign. The entire campaign is a fake, of course, an attempt to make someone who couldn’t pass a basic civics test and who can’t be bothered to learn anything about the world into a President. He himself is entirely truthless, as he sees everything in the world in relationship to himself, and interprets it to how it will benefit him and how he can use it as self-aggrandizement. That’s why he can’t go two sentences without bringing it back to himself; his own empty ego is the sole basis of his knowledge.
So the media should do what Connor was getting at: print what he says, and ignore what he pretends to mean. Or, report that too, and show how it is in direct contradiction with what he just said, and repeated. Trump is a man who thinks that being rich alchemizes his idiot proclamations into truth, so run with that. If he says “Obama probably killed MLK”, investigate it, and show how wrong and idiotic Donald Trump is. Don’t let him get away with saying “I never said that, and anyway, when I said it, it was a joke, ok, but I never said it.” He thinks his off-the-cuff lies are correct when he says them (because he says them) as much as he believes it is correct when he later claims to have never said anything. He gets away with this because he’s been surrounded by flunkies his entire adult life. Every statement is timeless and unalterable truth, until he decides to alter it, and then it was never said. Evaluate them like that. Don’t give him any room. Don’t treat this like normal. Print everything the way it was meant.