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Trump and truth: Why the media are losing the battle

The gap between facts and perception plays out repeatedly in press coverage of President Trump. The result is a seemingly irreconcilable break between the media and Mr. Trump’s supporters, with each hearing the president very differently.

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President Trump, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd from right), spoke to members of the media June 1 on the South Lawn outside the Oval Office in Washington. According to The Washington Post's Fact Checker, by the end of May Mr. Trump had made 3,251 false or misleading statements while in office.

Andrew Harnik/AP

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For three years, since the day he glided down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential bid, Donald Trump has confounded the mainstream media. He says things that many Americans find offensive. And he frequently says things that are provably false.

Yet, by some measures, President Trump is thriving. His job approval rating, while still relatively low, now ties his all-time high of 45 percent in the Gallup poll. Among fellow Republicans, he’s at 90 percent, also on par with his all-time best.

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Many factors play into attitudes about Mr. Trump, including the strong economy. But to his most ardent supporters, his aggressive way of communicating is a plus. And he uses that style to “play” the media – the very institution envisioned by the Founding Fathers as an important check on government, say experts on political rhetoric.

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The more the media go after him and call him out on his rhetoric, especially false statements, the more Trump uses the media as a foil. This, in turn, engenders more devotion from base Trump supporters – and even wins him sympathy from skeptics who believe the media go overboard at times in their criticism.

The press – already facing declining trust from Americans – is in a no-win situation in its dealings with Trump, says Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. 

Obviously, “you can’t stop [pointing out Trump’s misstatements], because if you do, all is lost,” Ms. Perry says. But she’s not sure all the fact-checking by reporters changes many minds.

Trump’s use of repetitive falsehoods in politics began with his participation in the birther movement, says Perry, referring to the conspiracy theory that questioned President Barack Obama’s American birth. As a candidate and then as president, Trump has developed a formula for reinforcing false information in public thought, a technique that’s particularly effective at his rallies, she says.

“First, he injects the inaccuracy into the body politic,” says Perry. “Then he repeats it over and over again. Then he talks about how he’s finding evidence to ‘prove’ what in fact is an inaccuracy, and sprinkles in editorial asides.” 

“There’s almost a religious cadence to it, like call and response,” she says.

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Last week’s news cyclone over migrant children may provide the sharpest test yet of Trump’s ability to defy facts without repercussions. He faced an uproar over his “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents after their apprehension at the US-Mexico border.

At first, Trump insisted he alone couldn’t fix the problem: Congress had to act. And it was the Democrats’ fault.

Then, he reversed course, and signed an executive order that allows children to stay with their parents while in detention. The episode’s impact on Trump’s job approval numbers has yet to be determined, but it could be instructive.

What’s different is that Trump directly contradicted himself in a very short period of time, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  

“This becomes a test case of whether a Trump audience is capable of seeing a reality in the face of repeated exposure to an unreality,” says Ms. Jamieson. “The answer may be no – in which case, we are in a fundamentally different world.”

‘A particular vernacular’

Trump allies respond to accusations of presidential lying in different ways. Former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on June 17, argued that the media are misinterpreting Trump’s style of speaking.

When asked about Trump’s habit of saying things that aren’t true, Bannon said, “I don’t believe that.” When prodded to explain, he said: “I think he speaks in a particular vernacular that connects to people in this country.”

In a broad sense, academics Perry and Jamieson agree that Trump’s “vernacular” connects with his supporters – and that it’s not always meant to be taken literally.

Jamieson recalls a focus group with Trump supporters in 2016, in which several said they didn’t expect Trump to literally put up a border wall that Mexico would pay for. Instead, what they heard was a commitment to following through on the issue.

“If you heard it to say, he’s going to do a lot more on immigration than anybody else … then at some level, there’s a truth there for you that’s not a literal truth the way the elites are hearing it,” says Jamieson.

Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway responds to questions about the president and truthfulness in a different way. At a recent press breakfast hosted by the Monitor, Ms. Conway pushed back on a reporter’s assertion that Trump is “serially untruthful,” and blamed anti-Trump bias.

“I think many people in this room … are skeptical of him, because you neither wanted nor expected him to be the president,” Conway said.

She also blamed reporters for being harder on Trump than on Democrats.

“Has the president said something that even comes close to, ‘It was a videotape that caused the loss of life of four people in Benghazi’? Has he said anything close to, ‘You can keep your plan, you can keep your doctor’?” she said, repeating assertions by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Obama.

Her comment raises a larger issue: All presidents spin, dissemble, exaggerate, shade the truth, use facts selectively, and make unrealistic promises. Some presidents, too, have been caught lying – such as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Dwight Eisenhower lied to protect national security after the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane.

But Trump – a businessman, salesman, and former reality TV performer with a keen instinct for public relations – has taken the art of presidential communication to a different place.

The L-word

White House reporters admit that he can be challenging to cover. “I have written stories about his lies, falsehoods, whoppers, half-truths, salesman-like stretches,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted recently.  “The reality is that what he does can be hard to label because, as anyone who has worked for him will tell you in candor, he often thinks whatever he says is what’s real.”

For that reason, many reporters aren’t willing to use the L-word – lying – when characterizing Trump statements that are false. Lying implies an intent to deceive, and only he knows his intent.

What is certain is Trump’s effective use of repetition – both verbally and via Twitter. Perhaps his most oft-repeated phrases are “fake news,” when referring to news stories that he doesn’t like or which contain errors, and “witch hunt,” in reference to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. In using those terms, Trump not only reinforces his base supporters’ beliefs, he also degrades overall public trust in the media and government institutions, say experts in communication.

“Social psychologists call it the ‘familiarity effect,’ ” says Jamieson. “It means that when you’re exposed to something repeatedly, your sense that it is accurate increases.”

Linguist George Lakoff, who advises Democratic politicians, says that Trump “weaponizes” words, and journalists need to do more than just report what he says. They need to provide context, refrain from putting false information in headlines or story leads, and avoid sensation in favor of substance.

“By faithfully transmitting Trump’s words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself,” Mr. Lakoff recently wrote in The Guardian. “Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him to put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas.”

The fact-checking industry, which has flourished under Trump, is another important element in Trump’s relationship with the media. Best-known, perhaps, is The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, which has been counting false or misleading claims made by Trump since he took office.

Through May, that list had reached 3,251 statements. Most recently, in its analysis of Trump’s speech last week at a rally in Duluth, Minn., Fact Checker concluded that Trump made a false or misleading statement almost once every two minutes.

Recent inaccurate claims by Trump include his assertion that “crime in Germany is way up” due to an influx of migrants. In fact, crime in Germany is at a 25-year low. Trump also says he has begun building his border wall, a claim Politifact says is “mostly false.”

But what impact does fact-checking have, at this point? To Trump supporters, the allegations of lying are just fake news. To his opponents, the fact-checkers only reinforce their view that he is a serial liar.

When asked about Trump and falsehoods at the Monitor Breakfast, Conway said she looked at the Washington Post’s list of presidential misstatements and found it overly nit-picky.

“I read it, and it’s that he’s off by a percentage sometimes about the jobs numbers or about the number of people who are no longer overdosing on drugs,” she said.

She echoed Lakoff, in effect saying the press should focus on substance and not “ ‘why did he say this’ or ‘why did he do that’ or ‘where is the first lady’? Seriously?” she asks. “That’s what journalism has become.”