Lies, and a bigger truth, at the State of the Union

Is the unpredictable president becoming predictable? As reporters expected, Trump—who apparently revels in the traditional pomp of the State of the Union—stuck to scripted, practiced, and pre-briefed talking points during his second SOTU address last night. Those talking points were also traditionally Trumpian, cycling through inflamed grievances, for example, around immigration and the investigations into his 2016 campaign. Trump did break one unexpected piece of news, setting his meeting with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, for February 27 and 28 in Vietnam. As is increasingly the case with Trump’s set-piece speeches, however, the SOTU lacked dramatic punch.

As with other recent speeches, major networks’ responses were predictable, too. Despite the high chance of presidential falsehood, many chose to air the SOTU without using chyrons to fact-check Trump’s words in real-time. Anchors added more context either side of the speech. But, as I wrote following Trump’s Oval Office address last month, post-hoc debunking is of little use to floating viewers. And it does little to counteract the narrative flow of arguments (or by Politico’s account, strategic rhetorical “whiplash”) premised on lies and exaggeration. As with the Oval Office address, better live fact-checking did happen online: at NPR, the Times, and on NBC News’s blog, among others. Predictably, they were kept busy.

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A bigger challenge for news organizations last night: to make clear to viewers that, while Trump appealed explicitly for bipartisan cooperation, he showed no movement whatsoever on policies he cannot get through Congress, most notably his Southern border wall. Laudably, much mainstream coverage, both before and after the SOTU, has been explicit that Trump’s lofty unifying rhetoric was an empty conceit. In doing so, reporters drew on Democrats’ clear rejection of the president’s appeal—conveyed in pre- and post-SOTU rebuttals by Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders, and the stony faces, during the speech, of many lawmakers—as well as Trump’s own decision, at an “off-the-record” lunch with network anchors yesterday, to call Joe Biden “dumb” and Chuck Schumer “a nasty son of a bitch.”

Journalistic vigilance around these broader false narratives is crucial. But, as has also become obvious in the Trump era, this vigilance seems unlikely to move voters from their partisan siloes. SOTU viewership is often strongly skewed toward the president’s supporters. According to CNN’s polling, last night’s audience had the largest partisan tilt of any SOTU since 2001; another poll, conducted by CBS News, recorded a 76 percent approval rate for Trump’s address. Throughout his speech, the president was aware of, and playing to, this audience. “Save for the majesty of the setting… parts of this State of the Union speech could have been drawn from one of his ‘Make America Great Again’ rallies,” the Times’s Mark Landler writes.

In all these ways and more, last night’s SOTU was little more than a reminder of Trump’s predictable rhetoric, and the media and public’s predictable responses to it. As Landler notes, the SOTU has long been a treacly mix of insincere cordiality, and calls for cooperation that don’t work out in practice. This time, Trump barely bothered to hide his partisan agenda, and neither the Democrats nor the media indulged the bromides he did offer. The depth of our divisions might be a bitter pill, but the SOTU’s biggest lie has always been its sugar coating.

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Below, more on last night’s SOTU:

  • A sartorial message: Democratic congresswomen wore white last night, a pointed reference to the suffragette movement. The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz has more.
  • Also predictable, part I: Commentators on Fox News gave the president’s speech rave reviews once he’d wrapped up, lavishing praise, in particular, on what they called his impactful use of guests. At least one conservative viewer was markedly less impressed. “This was the lamest, sappiest, most intentionally tear-jerking SOTU ever,” Ann Coulter tweeted. “Please fire your speechwriter, @realDonaldTrump.”
  • Also predictable, part II: The SOTU ran long, clocking in at 82 minutes. “This was not a particularly good speech,” Stephen Colbert quipped on his CBS Late Show. “What it lacked in quality, it made up in length. This speech was like watching paint lie.”


Some news from the home front:
Craig Newmark, a founder of Craigslist and member of CJR’s Board of Overseers, is gifting $10 million to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to establish the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia, and $5 million to the Poynter Institute to create an ethics and leadership center. In the spring, CJR will team with the Poynter Institute at a conference to shape the issues the new centers will tackle. You can read more details from Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, here.


Other notable stories:

  • Facebook yesterday removed 22 more pages linked to Alex Jones and his conspiracy theory site, InfoWars, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports. Jones’s personal Facebook profile remains active, however.
  • In France, prosecutors tied to Emmanuel Macron, the country’s president, tried to search the newsroom of Mediapart, an investigative website, for information linked to the site’s damning recent series of stories on Alexandre Benalla, the infamous former Macron aide who beat up a protestor last year. Mediapart blocked the search attempt, which was a response to an invasion of privacy complaint, Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre report for CJR. The site did hand recordings it obtained to the inquiry examining Benalla.
  • In recent weeks, Kitra Cahana, a freelance photojournalist, and Daniel Ochoa, a photographer for the AP, have both been denied entry to Mexico, where both had been reporting on the migrant “caravan,” the LA Times’s Kate Linthicum, Cindy Carcamo, and Molly O’Toole report. Cahana and Ochoa said that US Border Patrol agents had previously taken pictures of them, and that Mexican police photographed their passports.
  • The Times’s Jaclyn Peiser charts the rise of “the robot reporter” at outlets like Bloomberg, the AP, and The Guardian, which have used artificial intelligence to write stories on financial reports, political donations, high school sports, and more. “Journalism executives say [AI] is not a threat to human employees,” Peiser writes. “Rather, the idea is to allow journalists to spend more time on substantive work.”
  • After McClatchy offered voluntary buyouts to 450 staff last week, CJR’s Amanda Darrach looked at the remuneration of Craig Forman, the newspaper chain’s president and CEO. Forman’s “newest contract with the company, dated January 25, 2019, includes a base pay of $1 million, a bonus of $1 million, and an additional $35,000 monthly stipend… for Forman’s travel, housing, office, and security expenses,” Darrach writes.
  • Following a reader-donation campaign, the Times gifted digital subscriptions to 3 million US students, Axios’s Sara Fischer reports. Schools in “some parts of the country” were apparently skeptical of the Times’s motives, however. “It was harder to give this away than expected,” the paper’s head of subscription growth told Fischer.
  • Tania Karas, a migration reporter for Public Radio International, credits Facebook with deepening her understanding of the refugee beat, and allowing her to keep tabs on her sources’ new lives. “I’d met them in some of their darkest moments—living in squalid camps or sleeping on the streets—but their Facebook photos gave me insight into their old lives,” Karas writes. “It was yet another reminder that ‘refugee’ was just one slice of their identities.”
  • CGTN, the American English-language arm of China’s state broadcaster, has registered as a foreign agent in the US “in the spirit of cooperation,” BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano reports. “CGTN filed the registration on February 1, the day after high-level trade talks concluded in Washington” between American and Chinese officials.
  • And the LA Times, which is expanding under Patrick Soon-Shiong, its new owner, announced yesterday that it will be bringing back its standalone print food section, which had been scrapped amid cuts in 2012. “We view Los Angeles as the nation’s food capital,” Norm Pearlstine, the paper’s editor, said.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.