Trump's Oval Office address was pure propaganda; networks shouldn't allow it again

After Tuesday's debacle in the Oval Office, television network executives should practice a simple word: No.

No, Mr. President, you may not break into prime-time programming to fund raise and mislead.

They'll need to practice because you can be sure that the request will come again. And again. Let's be clear: There was no − zero − news in President Donald Trump's address to the nation Tuesday night. There were high-drama quotes: "crisis of the soul." There was fearmongering: "I've met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration." But there wasn't anything of substance that we haven't heard many times before.

And all the fact-checking in the world − worthy as it is − can't make a dent in the spread of misinformation that such an opportunity gives the president. The casual viewer would probably come away from Trump's speech with the impression that there is a dangerously high crime rate among the immigrant population. That there is more illegal entry into the United States than ever before. Such is the power of repetition. 

Fact-checkers and White House correspondents countered − before and after the speech − that none of that is true. But the lies are spread; the damage is done. As the linguist and author George Lakoff puts it, the news media "has become complicit with Trump by allowing itself to be used as an amplifier for his falsehoods and frames."

That's exactly what happened Tuesday night.

News junkies, journalists and particularly astute citizens undoubtedly realize that much of what Trump said is exaggerated or simply false. Those who read a quality newspaper Wednesday morning or endured hours of non-Fox cable news on Tuesday do, too 

But most Americans don't absorb their news that way. They see a headline on their phone and swipe it away. They look up in annoyance as the president's words intertwine with "The Conners" or "NCIS," and they pay attention for a few minutes. And so false information wins out. And even if Trump doesn't get his border wall, he gets a win of sorts. He sows lies, or at least confusion.

"Trump needs the media, and the media help him by repeating what he says," Lakoff told me last year when I wrote about his idea for a better way: the "truth sandwich."

I wouldn't suggest, for a moment, that network television and the rest of the mainstream media should ignore what the president says. That would be irresponsible, not to mention impossible. Especially with 800,000 federal workers bearing the brunt of an unnecessary government shutdown, there is inherent news value in what's going on. News organizations are rightly focused on that, including on the president's attempts to justify it.

But broadcasting him live and unfiltered − whether in an Oval Office speech, or an impromptu news conference, or at a campaign rally − has been a bad idea for quite some time.

Instead, whatever news is produced can be presented in context with facts woven in from the start: Truth first.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, by some estimates, Trump received billions of dollars of free advertising by being put on the air live almost every time he was in front of a podium. The media's inability to wrest their collective gaze from him is one of the major reasons he gained the presidency. That's been acknowledged as wrong, including by CNN honcho Jeff Zucker, whose network was one of the worst offenders. It is now one of Trump's biggest targets of scorn.

Trump insults the media as "the enemy of the people" and "the opposition party." He heaps abuse on reporters, and constantly undermines the role of the press in our democracy. But when he came around looking for free airtime − preceded by a friendly, off-the-record lunch with news anchors − the answer (after a bit of hesitation that predictably went nowhere) was yes.

Yes, because it's the president of the United States. Yes, because there might be actual news. Yes, because they've (mostly) done it that way in the past. Yes, because they want to be "fair."

As it turned out, yes was the wrong answer.

The news media is absolutely terrible at learning from its mistakes. But, scorched on Tuesday night, broadcast television executives really ought to learn from this one. It's a simple two-letter word. Let's say it together: No.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post's media columnist.

 

 

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