Jeffrey Goldberg: Trump: Americans who died in war are ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’
As Daniel Dale has tirelessly demonstrated, Trump lies in public statements dozens of times a day. So do his representatives: This past Wednesday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, coolly claimed in the White House briefing room that Trump had “never downplayed” the threat of the virus, just minutes after CNN aired Bob Woodward’s tape of Trump saying he had “wanted to always play it down.” (I don’t think she was distinguishing between downplaying something and playing it down. She was just brassing it out, Baghdad Bob–style.) Past press secretaries, and presidents, lied when the truth would be inconvenient or embarrassing. Trump just lies. As Dan Coats, Trump’s own former director of national intelligence, is quoted telling Bob Woodward, “To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”
People outside the business may not recognize what a step it is, culturally and professionally, for reporters and editors to act on the implications of this reality—the knowledge that what a president or his senior representatives say has exactly zero factual value. If you are trying to inform the public, you’re better off not reporting what this president says, contends, or does, unless there are external indications that it’s true.
And there is certainly no reason to present Trump’s claims on equal footing with other information. Once again, that is because the track record indicates that if Trump or one of his press representatives says something, it’s probably not true. And yet the instinct is so hard to resist, the impulse to add “some critics say …” so powerful.
Take another example that should have been instructive: In March of last year, William Barr released his grossly misleading summary of the Mueller report, claiming that it offered a clean bill of health for Trump. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post fell for it. “Mueller Finds No US-Russia Conspiracy,” read the banner headline in The New York Times; “Mueller Finds No Conspiracy,” trumpeted The Washington Post. Weeks later, after Mueller had complained (delicately) about Barr’s behavior and the full report came out, the papers and other outlets ran stories about Barr’s intentional distortions. (Early this year, a federal judge criticized Barr for presenting a “distorted” and “misleading” account.) For the Post, the Barr episode was an atypical case of a running a headline that took Trump’s claims at face value. For the Times, it was unfortunately more representative.
Last week, after Jeffrey Goldberg reported in The Atlantic about Trump’s calling veterans “suckers” and “losers,” the Post ran a story about the claims headlined “Trump Said U.S. Soldiers Injured and Killed in War Were ‘Losers,’ Magazine Reports.” The Times framed its story as if Trump’s rebuttals were the news:
Trump Angrily Denies Report He Called Fallen Soldiers ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’
The subhead (“dek” in journalese—together they are the “hed and dek”) was also significant:
“The report, in The Atlantic, could be problematic for the president because he is counting on strong support from the military for his re-election bid.”
That is: The news was what the contentions would mean politically. The framing was a way to avoid appearing to take sides, while in effect taking them. (And here is something I learned by going back to check the story: The hed and dek have been changed, and now read as follows, with no notation that they have been changed.)
Trump Faces Uproar Over Reported Remarks Disparaging Fallen Soldiers
“A report in The Atlantic said the president called troops killed in combat “losers” and “suckers.” He strenuously denied it, but some close to him said it was in keeping with other private comments he has made disparaging soldiers.”
Decades ago in Breaking the News, I wrote about the near-irresistible impulse to convert the substance of anything into how it would seem from a political operative’s point of view. Much as football commentators can remain neutral between teams, but express sharp opinions on the three-four defense or whether the blitz pays off, political writers can avoid taking a side by expressing their judgment with tactical commentary.