Trump vs. media; Trump is winning

The recent episode regarding the House Ethics committee is doubly disturbing.  First, on it’s substance, of course.  Right, as if Congress needs to take Ethics less seriously.  I’ll save the substance for later, as the House GOP has backed down for now.  Secondly, the horrible, irresponsible media coverage of the matter.  I actually had to explain the reality to my wife yesterday, who can absolutely be forgiven for getting the wrong impression just by seeing headlines.

The media has particular narratives they like.  Among these, conflict!  And, President acts, others respond.  The problem is when the facts don’t really fit these reality and are shoehorned into it anyway, giving the average news consumer and absurdly misleading sense of reality.  Greg Sargent is all over this (all emphases in original):

A little while ago, House Republicans reversed course on their plan to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, after a loud outcry from critics and the public. Trump tweeted about this plan today before Republicans made their decision. Here are some of the headlines and tweets that resulted:

* CNN: “House Republicans pull plan to gut independent ethics committee after Trump tweets.”

The Washington Post: “House Republicans back off gutting ethics watchdog after backlash from Trump.”

* Politico: “Trump tweets disapproval of GOP move to gut congressional ethics office.”

* Bloomberg: “House GOP reverses on ethics change after Trump criticism.”

* Business Insider:  “House GOP reverses course on gutting ethics office after Trump takes a whack at them.”

* NPR: “After backlash, including from Trump, House GOP drops weakening of ethics office.”

* The New York Times’ main account tweeted: “House Republicans reversed their plan to gut an ethics office, after intense criticism from Donald Trump and others.”

* The CNN story claimed that Trump “dramatically strong-armed House Republicans into line.”

All of these strongly imply or state outright that Trump criticized House Republicans for the act of gutting the ethics office, or strongly imply that, in reversing course, they were bringing themselves into line with what Trump wanted on the substance of this dispute. But that’s not what happened. Here’s what Trump tweeted:

The careful reader will note that Trump actually described the current ethics arrangement as “unfair” — signaling support for criticism of it — and then only questioned House Republicans’ decision to make reversing it their first priority. He questioned not the act of gutting the office, but rather the timing of it.

Indeed, subsequently, a Trump spokesperson confirmed this reading, according to Huffington Post reporter Jennifer Bendery. “It’s not a question of strengthening or weakening,” the spokesman, Sean Spicer, said, “it’s a question of priorities.”

Now, many of the above headlines were narrowly accurate in the sense that the House GOP decision to reverse course did come after Trump’s tweet, chronologically speaking. And it’s certainly possible that House Republicans reversed course in part because of Trump’s criticism of their timing.

But nonetheless, these headlines and tweets create a highly misleading impression. Any casual reader would come away from them convinced that Trump had taken a position in the underlying dispute that is counter to that of House Republicans who sought to gut the office — that he had criticized Republicans for the act of weakening ethics oversight.

But that just did not happen. Trump spokesman Spicer confirmed that as clearly as you could want: “It’s not a question of strengthening or weakening.”

Among other things, what is totally ignored in most of these stories is that there was plenty of actual, substantive, backlash, rather than Trump’s tweeted criticism of the timing.  Given that the House GOP reversed course, I’d like to think that the substantive response mattered.  But, apparently, that’s a less interesting story.

Sargent proposes a rule of thumb that is, sadly, so not followed:

Today, I’d like to ask for your indulgence as I propose another rule of thumb: If a casual reader would come away from your headline persuaded that Trump has adopted a clear stand that he hasn’t really adopted, then the headline is misleading and something is wrong. The threshold question here should be what impression a headline would leave with a reader who is skimming it. If it risks leaving a misleading impression, then it risks misinforming people. Trump often takes extremely slippery positions, making it more important to exercise care to avoid this.

In this particular case, this is not a narrow, nitpicky criticism. It’s central to understanding the situation.

I must say, the nature of this episode does not give me a lot of confidence in how well the media will fare in covering Trump for the next four years.  They seem far more interested in fitting Trump’s tweets into pre-existing narratives than in actually covering the reality of the world.  Ugh.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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