With CNN’s ratings tanking post-Trump, anchors like Brian Stelter are scrambling for sensational ways to keep the former president’s name on their lips. His latest attempt was giving Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the air time to compare Trump to the infamous cult leader Jim Jones, a self-proclaimed “messiah” who led his followers into the jungle for the largest mass murder-suicide in American history.
“You look at Donald Trump, a charismatic leader, who was able to continue to talk in terms that appealed to those who were disaffected, disillusioned, and who were looking for something, much like those who became part of Jim Jones’ congregation, the Peoples Temple,” Speier said.
Speier was part of a 1978 congressional delegation investigation of Jones’s commune in South America, where she was shot five times and left for dead but miraculously survived after being airlifted back to the United States.
“THE CULT OF TRUMP?” the CNN chyron read as Stelter prodded the congresswoman.
“The only difference between Jim Jones and Donald Trump is the fact that we now have social media, so all these people can find themselves in ways that they couldn’t find themselves before … both of them merchants of deceit,” Speiers said.
To say the “only difference” between the two men is social media is beyond just factually inaccurate, it’s a smear by association. Among the many, many differences between these entirely unrelated figures, Trump did not lead his supporters to feed 287 children a potion of Kool-Aid and cyanide, leaving them foaming at the mouth, convulsing, and then dead.
But more appalling than Speiers’ hyperbolic lies is that self-proclaimed journalist Stelter allowed Speier to make such a claim without any pushback or even a measly qualifier on a program supposedly dedicated to exposing media malfeasance. And Stelter didn’t just allow it, he orchestrated the segment and teed up the dishonest claim for her to make.
Beyond just a shameless grab for viewers, Stelter likely defends this kind of Trump-deranged gobbledygook on his show by claiming that Speiers’ personal experience with Jones justifies any comparison, no matter how defamatory. She saw it firsthand, you see, so if anyone has the credentials to make such a claim, it’s her.
But when someone survives something horrible, no matter how horrible, that does not make them an oracle from the gods. They do not get a free pass from libel and slander laws. That does not always make them a “reliable source,” one could say. On the contrary, it likely makes them less reliable as their personal experience has rendered them unable to be unbiased.
Stelter is known to wax poetic about what the media can do to regain trust. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s not this.