Eric Thayer / Reuters

Is the news media biased against Donald Trump?

That charge has been aired in recent days not only by the billionaire candidate, who negs CNN, The New York Times, and the press generally at almost every opportunity, but by several thoughtful political commentators who don’t much like him.

These media critics all cited the same example: coverage of the Republican nominee’s controversial statement that President Obama was “the founder of ISIS.”

That coverage was hardly uniform.

Overgeneralizing in a way that obscured the diversity of approaches different journalists took to the story, Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist wrote, “The media immediately decided Trump was claiming that Obama had literally incorporated ISIS a few years back. And they treated this literal claim as a fact that needed to be debunked.”

She accused the media of “hyper-literalism.”

At The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry concurred.

“With all the lies, all the exaggerations, all the ridiculousness that spews forth from his mouth, the media still finds ways to twist and misrepresent what he says,” Gobry wrote. “Take last week's stupid Trump controversy. The GOP nominee, we're informed, believes Barack Obama founded ISIS. Those are words Trump said. It's also true that Trump has trafficked in insane conspiracy theories, so, who knows. But does he actually mean it literally, in the way that when he links Ted Cruz's father to the JFK assassination that's literally what he means to imply? Actually, no. Trump means it figuratively—he means that Obama's policies caused the rise of ISIS.”

Arguing their cases, both cited a Trump interview with Hugh Hewitt that was also quoted by many of the journalists whose work they are critiquing. A transcript of the surreal exchange makes plain the reason for divergent interpretations of Trump’s words:

Hugh Hewitt: Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

Donald Trump: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.

Hewitt: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.

Trump: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?

Hewitt: Well, that, you know, I have a saying, Donald Trump, the mnemonic device I use is Every Liberal Really Seems So, So Sad. E is for Egypt, L is for Libya, S is for Syria, R is for Russia reset. They screwed everything up. You don’t get any argument from me. But by using the term founder, they’re hitting with you on this again. Mistake?

Trump: No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it. I give him the most valuable player award. And I give it to him, and I give it to, I gave the co-founder to Hillary. I don’t know if you heard that.

Hewitt: I did. I did. I played it.

Trump: I gave her the co-founder.

Hewitt: I know what you’re arguing…

Trump: You’re not, and let me ask you, do you not like that?

Hewitt: I don’t. I think I would say they created, they lost the peace. They created the Libyan vacuum, they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn’t create ISIS. That’s what I would say.

Trump: Well, I disagree.

Hewitt: All right, that’s okay.

Trump: I mean, with his bad policies, that’s why ISIS came about.

Hewitt: That’s…

Trump: If he would have done things properly, you wouldn’t have had ISIS.

Hewitt: That’s true.

Trump: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.

Hewitt: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it, but let me close with this, because I know I’m keeping you long, and Hope’s going to kill me.

Trump: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

Hewitt: Well, good point. Good point.

“The media,” Hemingway argued, “should have stuck through all 90 seconds of the discussion to avoid the idiotic claim that Trump was saying Obama was literally on the ground in Iraq running ISIS’ operations. He flat-out admits he’s speaking hyperbolically to force the media to cover it.” Gobry writes, “I know Trump only speaks in word salads and that makes things a little tricky sometimes, but it's still not rocket surgery to figure it out,” and adds, “I hate Trump, and I hope he loses. But I fear one consequence of his candidacy will be an even more biased press in the future.”

While granting that some journalists at some outlets handled this story poorly, I dissent from the proposition that coverage considered as a whole illustrates pervasive anti-Trump bias. Press critics who argue otherwise are missing hugely important wrinkles.

First, whether Trump believes that Obama founded ISIS is irrelevant to the need to fact check his statement. The literal meaning of his words and the way they are likely to be received by his supporters are pertinent factors. Just as Trump almost certainly believes Obama was born in America, but led many to conclude otherwise, the fact that he stated that Obama founded ISIS has consequences, especially since his remarks at the rally were missing the caveat he offered in the Hewitt interview.

Conspiracy sites like Infowars reacted to Trump’s rhetoric with articles like “Trump Is Right: Here’s Proof That Hillary and Obama Founded ISIS.” Russian propagandists exploited Trump’s words to spread misinformation. At a rally in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah cited Trump’s statement that Obama “founded ISIS” as proof of its truth, adding, “This is an American presidential candidate who is saying this.” As Zack Beauchamp put it, “Trump is, intentionally or not, validating conspiracy theories about America’s relationship with ISIS. It’s a terribly irresponsible thing to say and illustrates one of the many reasons Trump would make an awful president.” Fact-checkers ought to be pushing back on that claim.

Second, the media critics are mistaken in analyzing Trump’s words as if they had a single, ultimately discoverable meaning that could be discerned by listening more carefully.

In fact, Trump’s rhetoric, in the Hewitt interview and elsewhere on this topic, consists of a series of statements that are clearly at odds with one another. For example, Gobry’s insistence that Trump really meant Obama’s policies caused the rise of ISIS is at direct odds with the moment in the interview where Hewitt says, “You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace,” and Trump replies, “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do.” It isn’t that Trump spoke figuratively, was misunderstood, and ultimately clarified what he meant all along after the media stopped listening. Rather, Trump made mutually contradictory statements—deliberately.  

His strategic gambit was always and precisely to have things both ways.

By insisting that Barack Hussein Obama “founded” ISIS, knowing full well that his use of the word was unusual, inapt, and likely to mislead, then doubling down again and again when asked to clarify, Trump—who began in national politics by questioning Obama’s birth certificate—could again appeal to the part of his base that believes America is led by a secret Muslim foreigner who is allied with America’s Islamist enemies. And as even Trump acknowledged at the end of his interview with Hewitt, Trump willfully chose less accurate, more outrageous words to generate attention.

Having deliberately provoked with the repeated false statement that Obama founded ISIS, and deliberately inflamed with his reluctance to say he was speaking figuratively when asked to clarify, one Trump objective was achieved; having had things one way, he could move on to pretending, at the end of his Hewitt statement, that he was really just saying Obama had lost the peace all along, though he had directly rejected that notion moments earlier when Hewitt presented it.

Then, the next day, Trump sent out a Tweet with yet another contradictory explanation: He didn’t literally think Obama was the founder of ISIS; nor was he simply trying to express that Obama’s policies gave rise to ISIS; rather, when he said Obama founded ISIS, he was being “sarcastic,” but the media doesn’t get sarcasm.

This third explanation served the purpose of allowing Trump to attack the media, even though, beyond contradicting his earlier statements, it makes absolutely no sense.

As John Podhoretz put it:

Of course, parsing the actual meaning of what Trump said is beside the point, because as usual, his words were spoken not for their truth or falsehood, but because they served a purpose: lashing out at the media, whether for kicks or as a strategy.

All this deliberate, mendacious gamesmanship puts journalists in a very tricky position.

If they merely report what Trump literally says, they’re accused of hyper-literalism. If they report what he really means, judgment and interpretation are required.

But if they render judgment, “Trump is using misleading language to appeal to the portion of his supporters that regard Obama as a foreign enemy,” a proposition for which there is evidence, or “Trump is willfully obscuring the truth in order to attract media attention,” an interpretation justified by Trump’s own words, then they will be accused of bias for reporting subjective interpretations as fact.

Because Trump’s statements are so various and self-contradictory, there will always be some phrase he has spoken that reflects better on him than his other words. Surely the media critics don’t expect the press to ignore all the indefensible nonsense, pluck out the least indefensible hedge across multiple appearances, and present that to the American people as what Trump really and truly meant?

That would be hugely misleading! (The media critics are themselves misled. Note that Gobry, who accuses the media of twisting Trump’s words, purports to agree with Hemingway, though her complaint is that the media presents Trump’s words too literally.)

Now, despite the challenges that the media face, there were better and worse ways to cover the ISIS story; some journalists excelled, while others stumbled or even failed. I have no objection to specific critiques of failed articles or advice on better coverage.

Still, media critics should stop acting as if bias is the primary driver of even flawed Trump coverage. I’ve often observed and critiqued ideological media bias. With Trump, however, the driver of flawed coverage is, as in the case of the “Obama founded ISIS” story, a candidate who deliberately uses inapt, misleading words to spread falsehoods, all with the express intention of generating outraged media attention.

That some in the media react confusedly is Trump’s doing. He is trying to confuse them. If this Trump Tweet weren’t too absurd to actually believe it would be gaslighting:

To conflate confused press coverage of a sort that a candidate deliberately induces and could avoid by speaking more clearly with  “media bias” does a disservice to actual victims of media bias. Actual victims of media bias do not contrive to be misunderstood or deliberately induce outraged coverage.

And they quickly clarify their meaning, rather than giving self-contradictory followups. Any fool could avoid much of the bad press Trump gets … if that’s what they wanted.

Had Bernie Sanders declared that Ted Cruz’s father helped kill JFK, had Jill Stein posited that Barack Obama was a founder of ISIS, had Hillary Clinton claimed to have opposed the Iraq War from the start, they would all have been criticized and fact-checked for their obviously false statements, just like Donald Trump.

The man gets unusually bad press because he does an unusual number of things that are dishonest, calculated to provoke, and upsetting to sources on the right and left.

He isn’t a victim of bias, but of his own behavior.

And the right will do significant harm to the project of persuading Americans that left-leaning media bias is a problem if right-leaning press critics treat Trump as a case in point. “The media” encompasses many thousands of people, from the most talented professionals to the worst hacks, and every candidate, including Trump, is sometimes the subject of unfair coverage. But all things considered, the press has responded defensibly to the unusual challenges of covering a brazen, habitual liar.

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