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OMBUDSMAN

Truth, lies and media in the age of President Trump

By TOBIAS NAEGELE | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: January 18, 2017

Donald Trump often seems to be at war with the media. It’s a struggle for primacy over who gets to declare truths, what defines accuracy and how the national narrative unfolds. The weapons are words, the battlefield Twitter, press conferences and interviews. And just as in a land war, the consequences threaten to spill over into the wider neighborhood.

Our new president calls the media “dishonest,” a blanket condemnation that undermines the entire profession, striking at the credibility that gives journalists standing in the first place. It’s his counterpunch to every reporter who’s ever questioned Trump’s own credibility or his fitness for office, and he uses it in the same way he used insults to dispatch his political rivals throughout 2016. Jeb Bush was “Low Energy,” Marco Rubio “Little Marco,” Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary.”

Journalists represent “the dishonest media.”

“War is the continuation of politics by other means,” Carl von Clausewitz said, and here we are. This “dishonest media” charge is a convenient defensive maneuver every time the president comes under attack, but it’s clever marketing. Repeated often enough, the public will believe it. Yet Trump is an avid consumer of news and a skilled communicator capable of using the media to his advantage. While he dismisses as “fake news” coverage he doesn’t like, he frequently cites media coverage to prove his points.

Trump may not like press conferences, but he clearly understands that they are, first and foremost, performances. His supporters delighted in seeing him cut off a reporter from CNN, whom he dismissed as “fake news.” The message: He won, he’s in charge, he gets to choose whose questions he’ll answer.

Trump tweeted the words “dishonest media” seven times in the first two weeks of 2017. In just two days after BuzzFeed published a 30-page “dossier” of unsubstantiated accusations that Russia had compiled embarrassing material with which it might potentially blackmail Trump, he tweeted the words “fake news” seven times. Others have picked up on that and used both as hashtags on Twitter.

Yet despite his ugly face-off with CNN (and his related comments about BuzzFeed), Trump has not shied from the media spotlight. Even as he declares they’re all going out of business, he continues to dole out exclusive interviews with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, tacit recognition that they are useful in spreading his message.

In the latest of these, an exclusive interview with The Washington Post reported Jan. 16, Trump laid out broad visions for replacing the Affordable Care Act and for cutting taxes, providing just enough details to merit a page-one story but not enough to draw him into a detailed policy debate.

That’s not war, it’s politics. And well played, at that.

Smart politicians learn not only that the media can be used, but that most channels are happy to oblige in exchange for access, especially exclusives.

On the other side, journalists instinctively challenge authority and question those who play fast and loose with the truth. Calling out falsehoods is a journalistic responsibility, but how journalists do so is almost as important as whether they do. When the distinction between fact and opinion is blurred or when the journalist doesn’t stop at presenting a countervailing fact but chooses to assign motive — calling an error or overstatement a lie — we get into dangerous territory.

A couple of weeks ago, “Meet the Press” anchor Chuck Todd asked Wall Street Journal Editor Gerard Baker whether media outlets should call out public officials for lying. “If somebody says an out and out falsehood, do you say the word ‘lie’?”

Baker’s response set off a firestorm of criticism: “I’d be careful about using the word, ‘lie,’ ” Baker said. “ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” Baker went on to say on the air, and in a follow-up column a few days later, that it’s the reporter’s duty to “point out when candidates, presidents, chief executives, public officials or others in the news say things that are untrue,” but that it’s best “to leave the judgment about motive — and mendacity — to our readers, who are more than capable of making up their own minds about what constitutes a lie.”

Well said. One thing politicians and journalists have in common is to underestimate the intelligence of the public. But the old adage that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time, holds true.

Stars and Stripes doesn’t cover the broad swath of presidential politics. It doesn’t have a White House correspondent, nor does it need one. It rightly focuses its reporting resources on military matters, and while that does include Congress, the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, those beats represent a different kind of political circus. Stripes does, however, publish political coverage from others — The Associated Press, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, among others. These days that coverage must be viewed with a skeptical eye.

“We’re in a very sensitive period now in political coverage, not just because of politics, but also the press,” says Stripes Editor Terry Leonard. “Editors have to be more careful with political coverage than in the past. It’s going to take a lot more attention.”

When news broke about the so-called dossier on Trump, Stripes editors waited until they’d seen four wire articles before choosing one to publish.

That’s wise. Speed is essential in the news business, but speed doesn’t trump accuracy, fairness and balance (if you will forgive the pun).

Readers have a role too. Speak up when you see opinion stray into news coverage — not just with a snarky comment on the bottom of the story or on Facebook, but in an email or even a phone call to the reporter or an editor. Tell them what standard you expect and hold them to it. We’ll all be better off if you do.

I want to hear from you. What do you think of the coverage in Stars and Stripes? Send me an email at naegele.tobias@stripes.com or post a comment with this column online.

President-elect Donald Trump answers a question during a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 at Trump Tower in New York City, N.Y.
GARY HERSHORN, ZUMA PRESS/TNS

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