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With 16,241 “false or misleading claims” during the first three years of his presidency, according to a Washington Post tally, Donald Trump has managed to cover pretty much every known form of lie. His most common category of falsehood, however, is almost certainly “bullshit.” As defined by the Princeton philosophy professor emeritus Harry Frankfurt, these are statements made when the speaker “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
Trump’s tendency toward “bullshit” can be entertaining, such as when he pretends to have expertise in toilet flushing and windmills. But the habit is a great deal more problematic when the topic is, say, an ongoing pandemic that has the potential to kill millions of people, disrupt national economies, and cause chaos across the globe.
The latter problem has been exacerbated by our most important media institutions, which have had trouble admitting the terrifying truth. It’s not just that they won’t call a lie a lie (much less “bullshit”). It’s that they hide Trump’s tendencies to sputter nonsense by making him appear far more articulate and sensible than can be justified by any objective observation.
The most valuable coverage of Trump’s presidency has come from Daniel Dale, whom CNN hired away from the Toronto Star, thanks to his focus on just this phenomenon. He wrote in November 2018 that Trump keeps lying, in part, because he “knows the lies will be broadcast unfiltered to tens of millions of people—by some of the very outlets he disparages as ‘fake news.'”
Dale might as well have been speaking about a recent egregious New York Times headline, “Criticized for Coronavirus Response, Trump Points to Obama Administration.” The story itself was hardly more enlightening. Reporters Peter Baker and Sheila Kaplan began by summarizing and then quoting Trump’s “bullshit”—”The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing, and we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion”—and followed it up with mock confusion. “It was not entirely clear what he was referring to,” the reporters noted, as “health experts and veterans of the government during Mr. Obama’s presidency said they were unaware of any policy or rule changes during the last administration that would have affected the way the Food and Drug Administration approved tests during the current crisis.”
Of course, anyone who gave Trump’s statements a millisecond of thought would know that he was making up this story on the spot. But here’s the rub: According to Baker, the Times‘ chief White House correspondent, thinking is not part of his job. As he explained recently, “I never make up my mind…that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong.” He may as well have issued an embossed invitation to politicians to lie to him.
But again, the problem here—whether it’s the Times or the countless institutions for which it defines journalistic standards—goes beyond purposeful gullibility toward a pathological liar, served up in the guise of accountability journalism. It is that the media reports Trump’s words in a manner that intentionally obscures his obvious ignorance. Referring to the president’s bizarro March 2 meeting with members of the pharmaceutical industry, Baker and his colleague Michael Crowley wrote that “Mr. Trump has made himself the primary source of information to the public with mixed results. Appearing before cameras sometimes multiple times a day to talk about the coronavirus, he has offered a consistently rosier assessment of the situation than health experts and has put forth unproven or even false assertions.” This is strong language for the Times, but it nevertheless fails to convey that the president kept repeating one harebrained statement after another, even after they were repeatedly corrected on camera.
Moreover, Baker and Crowley invited Trump and his defenders to slander and lie about both the Democrats and reporters in order to further the administration’s campaign of potentially lethal medical misinformation. White House spokesman Judd Deere, we learned from the Times, insisted that “what we are seeing from the left and some in the media is a disgusting effort to distract and disturb the American people with fearful rhetoric and palace intrigue.” Baker and Crowley even felt it worthwhile to repeat a tweet by Republican minority whip Steve Scalise (“Shame on Dems for trying to play politics with the Coronavirus”), as if these comments, presented without evidence or context, somehow advanced readers’ understanding of the crisis. But as anyone who watched the event or consulted a transcript would have known, the real problem was not simply a “rosier assessment” or “unproven or even false assertions”; it was the president’s constant spewing of “bullshit.”
In 2018, Dale observed that “Trump regularly makes 20 to 30 false claims in his rally speeches. But if you watched a network news segment, read an Associated Press article, or glanced at the front page of a newspaper in the city that hosted him, you’d typically have no idea that he was so wholly inaccurate.” By contrast, Dale continued, “If a car salesman told you 36 untrue things in 75 minutes, that would probably be the first thing you told your friends about your trip to the dealership.” But not only have Trump’s lies become normalized by the mainstream media, so, too, have his cluelessness, incoherence, and outright stupidity.
When Trump was the host of The Apprentice, according to a supervising editor on the series, the editors’ “first priority on every episode…was to reverse-engineer the show to make it look like his judgment had some basis in reality. Sometimes it would be very hard to do.” Unfortunately, many in the mainstream media have defined their jobs the same way. And this time, thanks to the coronavirus, the results will be deadly.