The Media Today

How should we respond to Trump’s hurricane lies?

September 10, 2019

Donald Trump’s Alabama psychodrama is still going on. Previous scenes featured the president of the United States erroneously warning that the state was in the path of a deadly hurricane; doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on his error; defacing an official weather map with a Sharpie to prove [sic] his point; and tweeting absurdist videos mocking CNN’s attempts to correct him. Somewhere in the middle, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put out an unsigned statement slapping down its own scientists and endorsing Trump’s lies instead.

Yesterday, things somehow got weirder, and more worrying. The New York Times reported that officials at NOAA put out the pro-Trump statement only after Wilbur Ross, the Commerce secretary, threatened firings at the agency. The Washington Post reported that Craig McLean, NOAA’s acting chief scientist, rebuked the statement in an internal email; he called it “political” and a “danger to public health and safety,” and promised to investigate. And at a major meteorological conference in (you can’t make this up) Alabama, Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, vocally backed his staff against the efforts to undermine their integrity. There followed a standing ovation.

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The reaction of the press, predictably, has been outraged. Using the apparatus of government to enforce fealty to the guy at the top, Paul Krugman writes in the Times, is how democracies die, and if you aren’t worried, you aren’t paying attention. On Twitter and on cable news, there were allusions to George Orwell, to the Soviet Union, and to North Korea. But not everyone thinks the Alabama episode should be front and center. Some observers reckon it’s a distraction, and that we should ignore it, or at least be less frenzied about it.

If this sounds like a debate we’ve had before, it is. One reason we haven’t settled it yet is because there’s merit in both stances. The Alabama episode is an illustration of that. Trump wilfully misinforming the public in the face of a present threat to life and property was obviously dangerous; bullying public servants into following his lead was disgraceful, and a waste of taxpayer money. We shouldn’t normalize conduct such as this, because it isn’t normal and it isn’t healthy. And yet, from an already high baseline, Trump increasingly seems determined to deflect, distract, and attack, devouring column inches and air time that might be devoted to any number of other matters. In other words, he’s trolling; weren’t we all taught not to feed the trolls? Trump-watchers still differ as to whether his manipulations of public discourse are a campaign tactic, or simply an accident of his nature. In any case, we have at least 14 more months of this to endure.

Last night seemed a case in point. Trump held a rally pegged to a more immediate election, for a US House seat in North Carolina. (Voting is today.) To wild cheers, he told supporters that he wants to be in office during North America’s men’s soccer World Cup, in 2026, so he “may have to go for an extra term.” (A reminder, if needed: Trump’s two-term limit expires in 2024.) He then unloaded on the press. “Tomorrow you’re gonna see headlines: Trump wants an extra term, I told you, I told you!” he said, mimicking a temper tantrum. “We told you! He’s a dictator!

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But this morning, there aren’t headlines hyperventilating about Trump’s “extra term” comments—at least, they aren’t prominent. That poses an interesting question: why, exactly, do Trump’s lies about Alabama merit days of hyperventilation, while a threat not to leave office passes mostly without mention? Trump clarified that the latter was a joke—but one point of trolling is you’re never quite sure what’s really a joke and what isn’t. The Alabama lies involved immediate danger—but if America’s democracy is dying, isn’t that immediately dangerous, too? It’s troubling that the president is suppressing official science—but the Trump administration has done that routinely since taking office, without a comparable public or media outcry. The Alabama campaign, in its sheer ludicrousness, might be a new low, whereas Trump has “joked” about refusing to leave office before—but if you’re worried about normalization, then surely novelty is irrelevant.

Since Trump burst onto the political scene, we’ve heard, over and over again, that each new presidential outburst, usually involving Twitter and/or lying, is the worst thing yet and simply cannot be ignored or downplayed. And yet all sorts of things that elicited that reaction initially now pass mostly without comment. Much of what Trump tweets goes into this category. In 2017, for example, he elicited sustained, widespread outrage when he tweeted a video of himself bodyslamming a CNN logo. Last week, he tweeted a video of a CNN logo superimposed on an exploding car. Do you even remember that?

This doesn’t show the press to be hypocritical, or even unduly alarmist; it points more to the sad truth that our information ecosystems—and individual attention spans—can’t process everything as a four-alarm fire, even if such a reaction might be merited. The next time Trump insists on lying about the locus of a natural disaster, our reaction might be less intense than it was this time; not least because Trump is likely to have escalated to even stranger behavior.

In light of all this, how should we treat crises like the Alabama episode? There are no satisfying answers. But the idea of escalation feels important: it does currently seem like Trump goes fishing for outrage, gets it, then leverages it into further outrage. It can feel, at times, like there’s nothing we can do to stop that: it’s the media’s job to call out outrageous things public officials do; accountability demands it. If we look carefully, however, there might be a middle path between all-out frenzy and actually-we-should-just-ignore-him contrarianism. The president has the power to set the agenda, but so does the press. When the president’s agenda smells like a bad-faith effort to manipulate us, we have the power, at least, to address it on our terms. Ignoring lies doesn’t serve news consumers. But feeding trolls doesn’t, either.

Below, more on Trump and Alabamagate:

  • Mixed messages: Yesterday, reports emerged that some survivors of Hurricane Dorian’s hit on the Bahamas—where the death toll has climbed above 50—were turned away from the US, where they were seeking sanctuary, because they lacked proper visas. Mark Morgan, acting head of Customs and Border Protection, reassured Bahamian travelers that they would be admitted “whether you have travel documents or not,” but Trump later contradicted him, telling reporters that “very bad people” could exploit the process otherwise.
  • Carl marks: Early in the Alabama episode, Trump tweeted criticism of ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who had corrected Trump’s misstatement—but accidentally tagged Jonathan Carl, a Baptist pastor in Kentucky. Yesterday, Carl responded to Trump in a blog post: “I’m a casualty of your drive-by tweeting war,” he wrote. “We all are.” Carl offered the president some job criticism and some advice, including “be humble” and “apologize more.”
  • Anonymous sources: In its story about Wilbur Ross, the Times quoted an unnamed “senior administration official” who insisted that NOAA’s statement was not political, but an effort to set the record straight. The official said NWS staff in Birmingham, Alabama, were motivated by a desire to embarrass the president; the Times acknowledged that the source “provided no evidence to support that conclusion.” The decision to grant the official anonymity provoked some criticism online.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, attorneys general from 50 US states and territories launched an antitrust investigation into Google; Alabama and California are the only states not to have signed on to the probe, which will focus initially on Google’s dominance of online advertising. Appearing on the steps of the Supreme Court, Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said of Google, “They dominate the buyer side, the seller side, the auction side and the video side with YouTube.” In other Google news, a document obtained by Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary reveals claims that dozens of the company’s employees faced retaliation from its HR department after reporting harassment and other issues at work.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Nicholas Diakopoulos finds that the “flood of attention and traffic” unleashed by Apple News “isn’t distributed evenly.” The app’s Top Stories section, which is curated by humans, “is relatively concentrated in terms of sources. Few sources are local, regional, or international in scope.” Often, it promotes big outlets’ versions of stories that smaller outlets published first.
  • Earlier this year—after bosses at MSNBC nixed a potential collaboration involving the stars of Morning Joe and the pundit Mark Halperin, who a dozen women have accused of sexual harassment or assault—Halperin made a threatening phone call to MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reports. After Halperin scored a book deal recently, I listed some of the media industry’s other #MeToo comebacks.
  • For CJR, Layli Foroudi profiles Tunisia’s national news agency, which, eight years on from the Arab Spring, is still transitioning from a government mouthpiece into a functioning, independent news service. Part of its transformation plan is “natural human decay,” Foroudi writes. “In five to six years, we are going to see a big change, we are going to see the younger generation take control,” a union representative tells her.
  • As anti-government protests continue in Hong Kong, journalists on the ground say they are increasingly facing violence at the hands of police; officials have repeatedly shoved, pepper-sprayed, and tear-gassed reporters, and shone bright lights at photographers. The International Federation of Journalists reported more than 30 violent incidents involving reporters between June and August. The Guardian’s Erin Hale has more.
  • Last week, Marcelo Crivella, the right-wing mayor of Rio de Janeiro, attempted to censor an Avengers comic book containing an illustration of two men kissing. On Saturday, Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil’s biggest newspaper, splashed the image on its front page. The president of Brazil’s Supreme Court later rebuked Crivella’s move.
  • And a Twitter account linked to the Times’s Archives deleted a tweet referring to Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader who died 43 years ago yesterday, as “one of history’s great revolutionary figures.” The tweet, the Times conceded, “lacked critical historical context.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.