The Media Often Hands Trump a Fig Leaf for His Lies
By Jessie Seigel/Washington, D.C.
The press has finally begun calling a lie a lie, and it’s about time.
During the past four years, some good solid reporting by investigative journalists at The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other lesser-known periodicals has revealed the innumerable abuses of the Trump Administration. And some cable network commentators have provided rigorous analysis of the news.
At the same time, all too many in the news world feed us shallow analysis in shopworn language that dulls the urgency of the message they are delivering. These representatives of the Fourth Estate have avoided the word “lie” like the plague. Instead, they have referred to Trump’s blatant mendacity as either “falsehoods” or “alternative facts.” The use of “falsehoods” deflects from Trump’s responsibility for his words because a falsehood can be a merely incorrect statement uttered in error—while a lie is deliberate. The phrase “alternative facts,” is even worse, suggesting that people can have equally valid opposite opinions on what the facts are. “Alternative facts” was picked up from a 2017 Kellyanne Conway spin delivered on Meet the Press. The commentators who have repeatedly used Conway’s phrase have helped the Trump Administration place lies on the same footing as truth.
Kellyanne Conway’s 2017 defense of “alternative facts” on Meet the Press
In addition, instead of saying that Trump’s followers are determined to stay in the fantasy world he has sold them, many commentators have repeatedly referred to that fantasy and the real world as “alternate realities,” further enhancing the equation of fact and fiction. Likewise, when pundits now question whether we are entering a “post-truth society,” the use of that term obscures what they are really referring to: a society built on lies.
Such euphemisms are dangerous to truth and to democracy. Their indirection softens and minimizes the seriousness of unearthed deceptions. Their use misleads and can subconsciously lull the public into acceptance, as do the misuse and redefinition of language.
During Trump’s 2016 campaign and thereafter, many news analysts called Trump a populist, equating his demagoguery with Bernie Sanders’ populism. But a populist is someone who is for the people. In the United States, its historical antecedent is the Populist movement of the late 19th century, whose goals, hard fought for, came to fruition under F.D.R.'s. New Deal. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a demagogue who pretends to be for the people in the same way that my selling you the Brooklyn Bridge is me offering you a good deal.
Much of the news world persistently refers to Trump’s corruption, public fakery, and destruction of norms as “the new normal.” But it is not a new normal. It is abnormal, a deviation. By applying the catch phrase “the new normal,” newscasters are leading the public to accept that abnormal state of affairs as inevitable.
And now, some are calling President-Elect Biden’s aboveboard transition “a radical departure” from the last four years. Though they state this with apparent relief, the characterization still invites the public to accept the last four years of Trump as the norm. Biden’s actions may be a radical departure from the last four years, but that is because it is a return to normalcy. It is the Trump years that were the departure.
Recently the talking heads have been describing Trump’s post-election behavior as his going through the “stages of grief.” Are they deliberately trying to minimize Trump’s anti-democratic actions by shifting our focus to his mental state? Or are they themselves in denial and trying to find some way—any way possible—to avoid terming his actions an attempted coup? With Trump having asked numerous governors and secretaries of state, as well as the Supreme Court, to throw out legitimate votes en masse and, failing that, trying to get legislatures to overturn the vote of the people, we should not waste our time on Trump’s mental state. Ask instead why so much of the media has studiously avoided calling a coup a coup.
When Trump uses his transparently deceitful claims of election fraud to milk money from his followers, does the press decry it as a con game? No. They refer to Trump “monetizing” his defeat. Monetizing is the process of turning a non-revenue generating item into cash—an asset from which you earn revenue. Use of the term objectifies the human beings he is conning as cogs in Trump’s wheel—just another resource for a business, like a tractor or coal or oil.
The use of euphemisms is not limited to Trump’s actions. A number of journalists insist on referring to the Republican Senate and people working for Trump as “enablers.” You may enable an alcoholic if you stand by while the alcoholic drinks himself to death. But if you help him rob the liquor store, you’re not merely an enabler. In refusing to acknowledge that Biden won the election, the majority of Republicans have been participants in Trump’s anti-democratic actions.
Some pundits have repeated a line about the need to be “on the right side of history.” This amounts to a plaintive appeal for the GOP to do the right thing for posterity. But it is clear, based on their actions, that the Republican politicos fronting for Trump don’t care how they will be perceived a hundred years from now. Even if they did care, they would most likely echo, with pleasure rather than the intended irony, George Bernard Shaw’s line from The Devil’s Disciple: “History, sir, will tell lies as usual.”
To some, differences between words like “falsehoods” and “lies” or the rest may seem trivial. One might say, “we get the gist of the meaning with either word.” But if we are not attuned to their nuances, those slight differences will nevertheless affect our perceptions. It is precisely for that reason one word rather than the other is used.
This strategy is not new. The twisting of language to manipulate our thinking has a long history. Within the last century, it has developed into a high, if nefarious art, by those working in public relations. In his book, Propaganda, Edward Bernays, a founder of the public-relations industry, wrote:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government [that] is the true ruling power of our country…We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
By “invisible government,” Bernays did not mean the so-called deep state. He was referring to the practitioners of public relations, the people who come up with many of the euphemisms spouted in the media and by the public figures who shape our views. In Toxic Sludge is Good for You, an exposé of the public relations industry, authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton point out that many stories we take in as news were placed or influenced by PR firms working to manage that news for their clients.
In the popular media, we do presently have a multitude of honest, rigorous journalists like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Nicole Wallace, and Joy Reid; CNN’s Anderson Cooper; The New York Times’ Paul Krugman; The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne; and NPR’s Brooke Gladstone, as well as astute, forthright analysts like Robert Reich and Steve Schmidt But even the mainstream is a mix of honest journalism and slanted journalism, true investigative reporting and shallow coverage, commentators who truly analyze and talking heads who ape what they hear from others—often simply reciting, unchanged, the talking points of PR shills. We also have the total propagandists manipulating the public—Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax and the like—who are in a race-to-the bottom category of their own.
Since we must rely on the press to give us the facts we need to navigate our society, it is necessary that we, the public, learn how to catch the nuances of language aimed at us—recognize them, question what is behind them and, where appropriate, resist their influence. Because what we don’t know will come back to bite us.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.