Traditionally, magazines have given informed staffers the leeway to share considered judgments of that sort with readers in service of helping them to understand the world. In contrast, newspapers, TV networks, and NPR have shied away from rendering such judgments in deference to longstanding aspirations to “objectivity.”
Both approaches have their place.
In the case of the physician’s letter, the norms of some major news organizations caused journalists confronted with obvious bullshit to publish under headlines like these:
ABC News: “Trump Would Be ‘Healthiest Individual Ever Elected’ President, His Doctor Says”
NBC News: “Trump’s Physician Says His Health Is ‘Astonishingly Excellent’”
CBS News: “Doctor says Trump would be ‘healthiest individual ever elected’ to presidency”
USA Today: “Doctor says Trump would be ‘healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency’”
NPR: “Doctor: Trump Would Be ‘Healthiest Individual Ever Elected’ President”
Some outlets signaled in the body of their stories that readers should be skeptical. “The full letter is written in true Trumpian fashion, full of hyperbole and boasting of greatness,” NPR noted. “The whole letter is very odd, and very unlike ones typically released by presidential candidates—though Trump of course hasn’t followed a typical campaign model by any means.” Others, like ABC, published credulous items.
Come August 2016, Bornstein was still claiming authorship of the letter. “I thought about it all day and at the end, I get rushed, and I get anxious when I get rushed,” he said in an NBC News interview. “So I try to get four or five lines down as fast as possible so that they would be happy. I think I picked up his kind of language …”
This week, he changed his story, declaring that Trump came up with the language. “He dictated that whole letter … and I would tell him what he couldn’t put in there. I didn’t write that letter,” he told CNN. “I just made it up as I went along.” That account makes Bornstein a particularly odious kind of liar: the kind whose mendacity undermined democracy by flagrantly misleading the electorate.
But as my colleague Jim Hamblin noted in his followup article, published this week, what matters most is not Trump’s health nor Bornstein’s behavior:
What matters most are the actions of Trump, now the most powerful person in the world. If he indeed dictated this letter—and this is well supported even by a glancing linguistic analysis—then it is his ethics that should be called to question … Billions more people are implicated if this letter is evidence of Trump’s willingness to lie to circumvent and subvert a critical vetting process, to baldly misrepresent himself by using people like Bornstein for his own gain. The relevance of Trump’s actual health status—whether or not he takes a medication for hair loss, and if his body-mass index does indeed qualify him as “obese”—all of this sort of data pales compared to what such an act of forgery would say about his morality; his sense of honesty, transparency, decency, and accountability; his actual fitness to serve as president of the United States.
During his rise, Trump put the press and the public in an impossible position by lying in a manner that was both flagrantly obvious to anyone paying close attention and often impossible for news organizations to prove as a settled matter of fact. Most people, even in politics, are too decent to lie as he did. They possess normal consciences and senses of shame. Trump was willing to exploit the fact that humans extend some general presumptions of trust to function in this world. Like a con man, he benefitted by betraying that trust more shamelessly than others.