Over at The Atlantic, McKay Coppins has a lengthy new article that’s raising a lot of eyebrows in D.C., “The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President.” Coppins is a good journalist and makes a good effort to get inside the online and social media efforts in the Trump organization.
It didn’t get a lot of public credit in 2016, but as Coppins notes in the article, the nation’s top campaign consultants acknowledge that the Trump campaign’s digital efforts were extremely cost-effective, and, well, just plain effective. Their innovative tactics played a big role in securing a shocking victory over the Clinton campaign, which significantly outspent Donald Trump. Coppins has lots of good details on what the Trump campaign might have planned for 2020 and he’s a skilled writer, so the effort required to plow through the 8,000-word article is minimal.
However, despite Coppins’ best intentions, getting through the article did require keeping my gag reflex in check in key places. Despite the fact “billion-dollar disinformation campaign” would accurately describe just about any presidential campaign in the 21st century, the article is premised on the idea that the Trump campaign is so uniquely dishonest it poses an incredible threat to democracy and that the president is embracing “a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world.”
Now I am not about to jump into the fray by arguing that Trump and those in his orbit don’t often have a strained relationship with the truth. Coppins makes his case on this point in detail, as have lots of others. The problem with this article, and many that have come before it, is that the framework for determining what constitutes “disinformation” is simplistic at best. When evaluating dishonesty, there’s got to be a baseline for determining the truth — and where people set that baseline is revealing.
We Are the True Believers
Coppins’ article, like many that have come before it, seems to basically assume that the media consensus that reflects the worldview of a largely secular, center-left coastal overclass, a.k.a. subscribers to The Atlantic, is more or less the “truth.” So the article begins with Coppins creating a Facebook account that he uses to sign up for a bunch of pro-Trump feeds so he can get immersed in the campaign messaging:
I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.
Now I think I’m speaking, albeit sarcastically, for roughly half the country when I say, “Wow, can you imagine a situation where every time you turned on the news or saw a headline on the internet you had to reflexively question what you read?” In terms of political worldviews, the entire information system in this country has been heavily biased toward liberals and has been for decades. On certain topics such as guns and religion, the facts in major news outlets are regularly wrong to such an embarrassing degree it’s hard to decide whether the errors are the result of an absence of professional self-respect or contempt toward the part of their audience that cares about these issues.
As such, our disinformation problem doesn’t conveniently boil down to Trump vs. The Truth. It’s much more complicated than that. Not long after Trump’s election, the blogger Allahpundit — no big fan of Trump, for what it’s worth — made the following observation: “American politics increasingly feels like a novel whose events are retold by two unreliable narrators, Trump being one and the media being the other. The truth, or something close to it, is in there somewhere between the two of them.”
Maybe a lot of the Trumpian torrent in Coppins’ Facebook feed is easily debunked, but a lot of what is alleged to be dishonesty in the Trump-era isn’t nearly as clear-cut as the media will have you believe. Coppins’ own article provides a pretty good example in describing a Trump rally:
At one point, during a riff on abortion, Trump casually asserted that ‘the governor of Virginia executed a baby’—prompting a woman in the crowd to scream, ‘Murderer!’
This incendiary fabrication didn’t seem to register with my companions in the press pen, who were busy writing stories and shooting B-roll. I opened Twitter, expecting to see a torrent of fact-checks laying out the truth of the case—that the governor had been answering a hypothetical question about late-term abortion; that a national firestorm had ensued; that there were certainly different ways to interpret his comments but that not even the most ardent anti-abortion activist thought the governor of Virginia had personally ‘executed a baby.;
It was definitely a forget-it-he’s-rolling moment for Trump, and, yes, it was untruthful and wrong to say Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam “executed a baby.” But if Coppins is surprised by the absence of “fact-checks” on this matter, perhaps he shouldn’t be. That’s because Coppins can’t even seem to bring himself to remind readers of the exact details of what Northam did. The Governor wasn’t merely asked a “hypothetical question.” When asked about what to do with a baby born alive as the result of a botched abortion, Northam, who is a pediatrician, said that letting a living, breathing infant die was an option.
What Happened Next Indicted the Media and Democrats
These comments touched off a chain of insane political events. A medical school classmate of Northam’s, apparently appalled by his abortion comments, leaked to a right-wing blog a picture from his medical school yearbook allegedly showing Northam in a photo where a man wearing blackface is standing next to a man in a Klan uniform (It’s unclear which person Northam is in the photo).
Northam apologizes for appearing in the photo, but later rescinds the apology and denies knowing anything about the photo, but holds a press conference where he admits to wearing blackface another time. (Oh yeah, and to further enhance his racial bona fides, CBS News turns up yet another Northam yearbook, where it’s revealed his nickname at Virginia Military Institute is “Coonman.”)
Lots of Virginia Democrats and even Democratic members of Congress start calling for Northam to resign, so naturally, all eyes turn toward Northam’s successor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. But pretty soon, another leak comes out that the Washington Post has been sitting on two allegations of sexual assault against Fairfax.
Of course, the allegations are still being investigated against Fairfax and aren’t by any means proven. The Post defended not reporting the allegations against Fairfax because they “found no similar complaints of sexual misconduct against him. Without that, or the ability to corroborate the woman’s account — in part because she had not told anyone what happened — The Post did not run a story.”
However, Fairfax denies the allegations by saying the encounters were “consensual.” This admission alone makes the accusations against Fairfax far more substantiated than the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In that case, the Post rushed to print just a few months earlier with accusations that touched off a national firestorm, despite Kavanaugh’s complete denial, no corroboration from the three witnesses accuser Christine Blasey-Ford said were present, and no evidence Kavanaugh and Blasey-Ford had ever even met, much less been in the same room together.
With Fairfax now under scrutiny, people start looking at the third-in-line to become Virginia governor, state attorney general Mark Herring — who soon announces that he, too, wore blackface. At that point, everyone realizes the next in line to become Virginia governor is Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox. After all the calls for resignations, Democrats and the media clam up about the scandal, and this ends with all three men still in office and the Washington Post writing an editorial in December praising Northam to the hilt for having made “quite a comeback.”
So when Trump said Northam “executed a baby,” for a lot of people hearing that remark, it’s not quite as simple as saying Trump said something that wasn’t true. Sure, we can and absolutely should be clear that Northam did not “execute a baby.” But he did advocate killing infants born alive, and when Northam’s horrifying comments touched off a political scandal implicating the state’s top three political officials, the media committed metaphorical murder of its own. To paraphrase Iowahawk, they covered the story with a pillow, until it stopped moving.
Which Set of Falsehoods Is Worse?
If many people in this country have to choose between Trump and his slanderous exaggeration of unsympathetic Northam remarks, and a media that will help downplay the moral horror of infanticide, and engage in gross partisan double standards about racism and who gets accused of sexual assault, don’t act surprised when large numbers of Americans decide Trump is the lesser of two evils.
Of course, there are undoubtedly times the media is right and Trump is wrong. But whatever you think about the perils of Trump’s presidential campaign engaging in a blizzard of disinformation, Trump actually does get called out on this stuff — there were, in fact, fact checks of the “executed a baby” remark. (Snopes called it “mostly false.”) Places like The Atlantic write 8,000-word think pieces calling out the dishonesty. The Washington Post keeps a running tally of thousands “false or misleading claims.”
Nearly all politicians lie, but often the real danger is when the media are predisposed toward the politician who’s telling the lie. We saw this happen many, many times in the Obama years. (Heck, by the end of his second term, key members of his administration were bragging about manipulating the press to The New York Times and creating “echo chambers” for their message.)
Perhaps the most obvious example here is President Obama’s oft-repeated claim that “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” under his sweeping health care law. PolitiFact rated the claim “true” six different times before they reversed themselves and made it “lie of the year” in 2013 after the law went into effect and they could no longer deny millions of Americans were losing their health insurance directly because of the law.
Telling this particular lie was a central part of Obama’s reelection effort — would Obama have been reelected if the media had pushed back forcefully on this lie and told voters millions of people were going to lose their current insurance coverage? I guess we’ll never know, because they helped cover for this lie and Obama got reelected. I’m open to arguments to the contrary, but for the sheer volume of disputed things that have come out of Trump’s mouth, has anything Trump said to date been as impactful as lying about taking away millions of people’s health insurance?
Of course, in a perfect world, voters shouldn’t have to choose between “two unreliable narrators.” But despite their obvious frustration in the Trump era, the media can’t ultimately control what comes out of Trump or any other politician’s mouth. Media institutions can, however, control how they are perceived. But instead of self-examination and taking stock of their copious failures, many in the media have chosen to blame Trump and suggest his supporters are victims of “disinformation,” instead of winning back the trust of readers who rightly feel their opinions are not accurately reflected and their issues unfairly covered.
Time Is Running Out
This problem is compounded by Coppins’ perceptive observation that the media are running out of time to fix themselves. “What’s notable about this effort is not that it aims to expose media bias. Conservatives have been complaining—with some merit—about a liberal slant in the press for decades. But in the Trump era, an important shift has taken place,” he writes. “Instead of trying to reform the press, or critique its coverage, today’s most influential conservatives want to destroy the mainstream media altogether.”
The Atlantic’s core readership probably doesn’t get what he wrote here, which is that the biased media ignored meritorious complaints for years and is now freaking out that some have moved beyond merely complaining. Indeed, Coppins reports on how Trump supporters are now engaged in efforts to actively discredit the media.
Confronted with this realization, over at Axios, they sum up the Coppins’ article by noting that it paints a terrifying “worst case scenario” where “on election night in November, Trump gets numbers he doesn’t like, and directs his disinformation machine to discredit the results.” Yes, can you imagine what it would look like if a losing presidential candidate directed a “disinformation machine to discredit the results” of a free and fair election? And what if, instead of pushing back against such an effort, the media was largely complicit in it?
Of course, watching Clinton and Obama allies enlist the media in their effort to spread Russia-collusion nonsense and sow doubt about Trump’s election is exactly why so many Trump supporters are so angry at the media right now.
While the lack of self-awareness is enraging, the desire to burn it all down must be weighed against the terrifying prospect of not being able to trust anything you read, and the realization there are many things in the media worth preserving. Maybe you hate The New York Times, but you’re not getting extensive coverage about the dangers of global pandemics from TrumpTruth2020.com.
Similarly, if the media thinks it does have any sort of sacred obligation to help democracy function, then they need to start acting like it. Putting their thumb on electoral scales and pushing fringe cultural movements into the mainstream out of a personal belief this represents some sort of justice isn’t the media’s job; it’s to report the facts in a way that benefits others. Ultimately, a media that won’t stop serving its own interests deserves to fail.