Trump’s Lies Are a Virus, and News Organizations Are the Host

Journalists have become complicit in spreading the president’s falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Here’s how they can do better.

President Trump at a White House news conference
A White House news conference (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

The news media today face an epistemic crisis: how to publish the president’s commentary without amplifying his fabrications and conspiracy theories.

One flashpoint came several weeks ago, when President Donald Trump told Axios reporters that he planned to use an executive order to end birthright citizenship because, as he put it, “we’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen.” On Twitter, Axios CEO and co-founder Jim VandeHei wrote, “Exclusive: Trump to terminate birthright citizenship.”

As many journalists quickly pointed out, this was multilayered malarkey. The president was proposing an unconstitutional means of obliterating the Fourteenth Amendment on the basis of a falsehood; more than two dozen countries in the Western Hemisphere have unrestricted jus soli laws, like the U.S. Axios was treating as fact a haphazard plan, in search of an impossible outcome, justified by a false assertion.

Axios took about as much grief as it deserved. But as others have shown, it’s far from the only media outlet whose headlines and tweets are guilty of passing along Trump’s falsehoods as straightforward and noteworthy quotes.

  • When Trump incorrectly described the GOP health bill as covering preexisting conditions, Politico simply declared: “Trump guarantees coverage for people with pre-existing conditions in health care bill.”
  • When Trump falsely took credit for Ford moving a plant from Kentucky to Mexico, ABC News reported: “Donald Trump Takes Credit for Keeping a Kentucky Ford Plant From Moving to Mexico.”
  • When Trump claimed, without evidence, that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election, CBS News tweeted: “Donald Trump: ‘Millions’ voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.”
  • When Trump claimed dubiously that he would sever ties with his businesses, it was reported as straightforward fact by CNN (“Trump Cutting Ties With Businesses”) and the AP (“Trump Says He’s Leaving Businesses to Focus on Presidency”).

That brings us to Monday, when Trump called ballots cast in the Florida Senate election “massively infected” by fraud. ABC News and Bloomberg both quoted the president’s accusation in their headlines, but neither noted that it was baseless. Once again, journalists on Twitter erupted with outrage that these headlines failed to call out the conspiracy theory, the motivations behind the conspiracy, or the actual truth. Indeed, there is no evidence of any voter fraud whatsoever in the Florida Senate election.

This bickering might seem like inside-baseball among reporters, on the basis that headlines and tweets are not exactly capital-J journalism. But for many readers, they’re even more important than the actual articles. As The Washington Post reported, about 60 percent of people acknowledge that they read only the headlines of news articles; if some of those respondents were embarrassed to tell the truth (as they should be), the real number might be even higher. It’s worse on Twitter, where the most viral tweets typically have a click-through rate of less than 10 percent, which means that more than 90 percent of any given tweet’s audience never actually reads the article. Clearly, headlines and tweets belong at the heart of any discussion of modern news ethics.

The most recent controversy provides the perfect metaphor for Trump’s part-symbiotic, part-parasitic relationship with the media: infection. In epidemiology, a virus cannot multiply on its own. First, it must find a host, whose cellular machinery it commandeers to reproduce. For a virus, all distribution—all amplification—is infection.

So it is for Trump. The president’s conspiratorial language is an odious virus that has found a variety of hosts in the U.S. media ecosystem. The traditional news media amplify his words for a variety of reasons, including newsworthiness (he is, after all, the president), easy ratings (cable-news audiences have soared in his term), and old-fashioned peer pressure (the segment producer’s lament: “If everybody else is carrying Trump, shouldn’t we?”).

But a virus doesn’t just borrow a host’s cellular factory to reproduce; it often destroys the host in the process. So, too, does the president seek to destroy the traditional news media that have often amplified his messages. He attacks journalists, calling them “fake news” and “enemies of the people”; bars critical reporters from the White House; and convinces his followers that the news media are inherently corrupt. The attacks are working: Three-quarters of the GOP now say that news organizations make up anti-Trump stories, and about half of Republicans recently said that articles that cast their favored political group “in a negative light” are always fake news.

The traditional news media are thoroughly infected by the Trump virus. It is not only spreading the disease of the president’s lies, but also suffering from a demise in public trust—at least among one half of the electorate.

In normal times, there is little question about how to quote a sitting president. When the commander in chief says newsworthy things, and the press quotes his words accurately, that suffices for responsible coverage.

But these are not normal times. “What’s different is that the president of the United States is today the single most potent force for misinforming the American public, and he does exactly that on a daily basis,” the press critic Jay Rosen told me. “You can say, ‘Politicians have always lied; look at LBJ and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate.’ But this combination of elements has not been seen before.” Indeed, in the past few weeks, Trump has averaged more than 100 lies per week in public statements.

One solution is something like selective abstinence. Some commentators have adapted to the new normal by simply avoiding the president’s language when possible. “I don’t go out of my way to play tape of the president speaking,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said on her show. “The president very frequently says things that aren’t true. He admits that he says things that aren’t true. And I feel like on this show I’d like you to be able to trust me to give you true information.”

There’s the silent treatment, and then there’s the truth treatment. When traditional news outlets have to cover breaking news throughout the day, the linguist George Lakoff has proposed that they use a “truth sandwich.” That would mean bracketing the president’s unreal statements with slices of reality. For example, if the president claims that the GOP health-care bills expand insurance coverage (they do not), the AP or a similar source could tweet, “GOP health plan still reduces coverage. Trump claims otherwise, but provides no evidence.”

The Toronto Star journalist Daniel Dale has made it his mission to fact-check the president in extended Twitter threads, often while Trump is still on the stump. In an essay for The Washington Post, he wrote that since the president tells the same falsehoods over and over, the task is simple, if Sisyphean. “I don’t think U.S. media outlets have been persistent enough in fighting a daily battle for truth itself,” he writes. “In 2017, he averaged three false claims per day. In 2018, it is about nine per day. In the month leading up to the midterms: a staggering 26 per day.” The president has made more than 5,000 false or misleading claims in less than two years in office, according to The Post.

It’s not obvious that fact-checking is always effective against the Trump virus. On the one hand, there is considerable cognitive research to suggest that fact-checks can backfire. Several studies have found that repeated phrases and ideas create a sense of familiarity in the mind, and familiarity can create the illusion of truth. That’s because many people—particularly the elderly and less educated—easily conflate familiarity (“That sounds familiar”) with factuality (“That sounds about right”).

On the other hand, in one of the first studies of fact-checking, the political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that at least some people really do change their minds when confronted with new facts. The researchers created a panel of participants that approximated the political and demographic distribution of the U.S. Then they exposed the treatment group to recent fact-checks and measured whether their opinion about those facts (or about fact-checking in general) had changed. Democrats, who hold more favorable views of fact-checkers than Republicans, were more likely to change their minds after reading a fact-check. Republicans’ knowledge increased most when the fact-checks reinforced their biases.

This conclusion raises an uncomfortable question: What if telling the truth about the president diminishes the spread of his falsehoods among some groups, but also reinforces Trump’s support among base voters while deepening their hostility to the press?

The unavoidable reality is that even good behavior by the news media is not sufficient to contain Trump’s serial mendacity. Depressing as it may be to say, the lies will get out.

It’s not only because Trump has more followers on Twitter (56 million) than any news organization in the world. And it’s not only because Fox News (whose prime-time stars perform the duties of White House press secretary) averages more total viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. It’s because the communications revolution in technology has created a cluster of information clearinghouses—Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and even far-right cult sites such as Gab—where sensational and emotional exaggerations often travel farther and wider than honest reporting and dutiful fact-checking.

As the New York Times journalist Kevin Roose has documented, the top-performing stories on Facebook in the run-up to the midterms were shared by highly partisan websites such as Fox News and, not traditional, reporting-based outlets. On Facebook in October, 78,000 people shared a fictitious post claiming that Cesar Sayoc, the Trump fanatic who mailed bombs to several of the president’s enemies, was a “false flag” operative trying to steal the election from Republicans. That’s 28,000 more shares than The New York Times’ most viral article of the month.

It is either narcissistic or outdated, or both, for traditional media organizations to pretend that they have a monopoly on the power to amplify news. In the mid–20th century, this might have been a realistic notion. But in 2018, even as The Media have become an all-purpose bogeyman, the media—that is, the sum total of social media, podcasts, newsletters, and the whole international cacophony of information exchange—have entirely swamped the establishment in power and reach. Four times as many Americans saw Russian-influenced content on Facebook (about 130 million) than own a print or digital subscription to an American newspaper (31 million).

Is it hopeless to smother the president’s lies? In the biggest picture, yes. The news media cannot kill the virus. But by refusing to host it, they can at least limit the spread.

That is, even as they acknowledge their inability to reform the tens of millions of people predisposed to believe and share the president’s nonsense, they can protect their audiences with a combination of selective abstinence (being cautious about giving over headlines, tweets, and news segments to the president’s rhetoric, particularly when he’s spreading fictitious hate speech) and aggressive contextualization (consistently bracketing his direct quotes with the relevant truth). Call it an epistemic quarantine.

This isn’t the case for hopelessness. It’s the case for seeing the world as it is, which is the purpose of journalism in the first place. All the responsible press can do is to honor a social compact that, despite the wrenching changes under Trump, remains firmly in place: Seek the truth, for those who care to know it.