James Taranto observes:
In our Friday column, we noted that Trump had acceded to years of media demands and declared that Barack Obama was born in the United States. Those demands were as phony as the “questions” about the president’s birthplace. Rather than credit Trump for finally admitting the truth, the media turned on him with a new kind of viciousness.
That is, they followed the urgings of Jay Rosen and Jim Rutenberg and tore down the wall between news and opinion. The following quotes all come from news stories, not editorials or columns:
Associated Press: “After five years as the chief promoter of a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace, Donald Trump abruptly reversed course Friday and acknowledged the fact that the president was born in America. He then immediately peddled another false conspiracy.”
Reuters: “Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Friday abandoned his false claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States after spending five years peddling conspiracy theories that the country’s first African-American president started life as a foreigner. But, never one to let a controversy go without fanning its flames, Trump accused Hillary Clinton . . . of starting the so-called birther movement in her failed 2008 presidential campaign against Obama, a claim that does not stand up to scrutiny.”
New York Times: “Donald J. Trump publicly retreated from his ‘birther’ campaign on Friday, tersely acknowledging that President Obama was born in the United States—and effectively conceding that the conspiracy theory he had promoted for years was baseless. Mr. Trump made no apology for and took no questions about what had amounted to a five-year-long smear of the nation’s first black president. Instead, he claimed, falsely, that questions about Mr. Obama’s citizenship were initially stirred by the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, in her unsuccessful primary contest against Mr. Obama in 2008.”
Washington Post: “Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Friday acknowledged for the first time that President Obama was born in the United States, ending his long history of stoking unfounded doubts about the nation’s first African-American president but also seeking to falsely blame Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for starting the rumors.”
CNN: “Donald Trump finally admitted Friday that ‘President Barack Obama was born in the United States,’ reversing himself on the issue that propelled him into national politics five years ago. . . . But the issue isn’t likely to die down any time soon—especially as Trump continues to falsely blame Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for starting the ‘birtherism’ controversy.”
There are plenty more examples, along with lots of editorials and columns that were more or less indistinguishable from these news stories—and that indistinguishability is the point. In response to Trump’s statement, news reporters felt free, perhaps even duty-bound, to editorialize against him.
In doing so, they perpetuated a falsehood by denying Trump’s assertion that “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy.” A McClatchy report provides the evidence that the campaign, in the person of longtime Clinton consigliere Sidney Blumenthal, did just that:
Former McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher tweeted Friday that Blumenthal had “told me in person” that Obama was born in Kenya.
“During the 2008 Democratic primary, Sid Blumenthal visited the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Co.,” Asher said in an email Friday to McClatchy, noting that he was at the time the investigative editor and in charge of Africa coverage.
“During that meeting, Mr. Blumenthal and I met together in my office and he strongly urged me to investigate the exact place of President Obama’s birth, which he suggested was in Kenya. We assigned a reporter to go to Kenya, and that reporter determined that the allegation was false.
“At the time of Mr. Blumenthal’s conversation with me, there had been a few news articles published in various outlets reporting on rumors about Obama’s birthplace. While Mr. Blumenthal offered no concrete proof of Obama’s Kenyan birth, I felt that, as journalists, we had a responsibility to determine whether or not those rumors were true. They were not.”
Blumenthal denied it, and some journalists took his side against Asher. “Imagine a reporter claiming Steve Bannon once told him that Hillary killed Vince Foster,” tweeted the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who finished the thought: “Do you ask the reporter for more proof? Or do you run with it?” Later, he added: “Journalism, er, isn’t about taking someone’s word. If your mother says ‘I love you,’ you verify it.”
Which is exactly what Asher says he did. Blumenthal told him Obama was born in Kenya; Asher sent a reporter there to check out the claim, which turned out to be baseless. But in Weigel’s analogy, Asher is the putatively loving mother. Weigel is setting up a standard he cannot possibly mean to apply in general: When a reporter reports that a source told him something, do not believe him without further verification.
Other journalists stipulated that Asher’s account was truthful but tried to draw a distinction disadvantageous to Trump. The most revealing example came from Mark Murray, NBC News’s senior political editor: “If someone shopped the story—and no media outlet ran with it—is that really ‘starting’ it? Not how I see it.”
We replied: “In other words, Trump is to blame because the media paid him so much attention.” Murray: “We paid attention to Trump bc he was holding press conferences and interviews on topic. No similar behavior from ’08 HRC camp.”
It seems to us that if a whispering campaign is followed by an open one, it is reasonable to think the former “started” it. One can also make a strong case that a whispering campaign is worse because it allows the campaigner to evade accountability.
But what interests us most here is Murray’s justification for the attention the media lavished on Trump’s various bloviations about Obama’s birthplace. To be sure, anything he has ever said is newsworthy now that he is a presidential candidate. But why did journalists bother with Trump’s nonsense before June 2015?
In part no doubt because Trump is a fun and colorful figure who is good for ratings. But this column has argued, and we continue to believe, that the liberal media had a partisan interest in promoting birtherism so as to make Republicans look crazy and racist.
That theory is consistent with the frenzied reaction to Trump’s acknowledgment that Obama was born in the U.S. and his effort to shift the onus to Mrs. Clinton. In a hilarious interview with Mike Pence over the weekend, ABC News’s Martha Raddatz asked: “Why did it take him [Trump] so long to put it to an end?” Pence simply said, “It’s over,” to which Raddatz replied plaintively: “It’s not over.”
And we suppose it’s not, or we wouldn’t be writing about it. But now we’re talking about who started it—and on that question the facts are not on Mrs. Clinton’s side, even if the media are. Trump spent half a decade trolling the media with birther baloney, only to implicate Mrs. Clinton in the end. Whether that was his strategy from the start or a recent tactical adaptation, it’s dazzling gamesmanship on his part.
The question is whether the media’s open hostility will hurt Trump and help Mrs. Clinton. It may have the opposite effect. As the social psychologist Robert Cialdini—who is rumored to be advising Mrs. Clinton’s campaign—observes in his new book, “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade”:
The central tenet of agenda-setting theory is that the media rarely produce change directly, by presenting compelling evidence that sweeps an audience to new positions; they are much more likely to persuade indirectly, by giving selected issues and facts better coverage than other issues and facts. It’s this coverage that leads audience members—by virtue of the greater attention they devote to certain topics—to decide that these are the most important to be taken into consideration when adopting a position. As the political scientist Bernard Cohen wrote, “The press may not be successful most of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.”
In that vein, consider what happened over the weekend, after a spate of comparatively low-level terrorist attacks and attempts in Minnesota and the New York area. Most notably, a bomb made from a pressure cooker—similar to the one used in the fatal Boston Marathon attack in 2013—exploded in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, wounding 29 but killing nobody.
Trump mentioned the attack in a Colorado speech, and as the Hill reports, “the press . . . largely slammed Trump for referring to the explosion as a ‘bomb’ too soon.” But one news network went further:
CNN edited out the opening sentence of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s statement during breaking news coverage of an explosion in New York City that injured 29 people.
Clinton was on board her campaign plane Saturday night when she addressed the press following the explosion in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.
According to an ABC News transcript below, Clinton called the attacks in New York and New Jersey “bombings” before criticizing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump—who also referred to the explosion as a “bomb”—in an attempt to show contrast between the temperament of the two candidates, who are deadlocked in the polls.
The apparent intention is to make Mrs. Clinton look “responsible,” but the effect may be to make her look complacent. CNN is inducing viewers to think about terror, but what they think about it is up to them. Cialdini: “According to this view, in an election, whichever political party is seen by voters to have the superior stance on the issue highest on the media’s agenda at the moment will likely win.”
For some in the media, though, it may be more personal. Consider this exchange from NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, between host Chuck Todd and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd:
Todd: New York Times, I think it was Saturday, Maureen, had a lead that said, basically interviewing all these Upper West Siders panicking now. And in fact I think referred to it as “The polls are showing a ‘margin of panic’ for Clinton supporters.” Describe this east coast freakout that I feel like you’ve seen among the elites this week.
Dowd: Right. Well my friends, one of my friends, Leon Wieseltier, calls it a national emergency. And my friends won’t even read, if I do interviews with Donald Trump, they won’t read them. And basically they would like to censor any stories about Trump and also censor any negative stories about Hillary. They think she should have a total free pass. Because as she said at that fundraiser recently, “I’m the only thing standing between you and the abyss.” Oh, and they’re taking— Democratic strategists are taking antacids. In the Times today.
The Times story is well worth reading; if it doesn’t make you laugh, you have a heart of stone.
Imagine being a political reporter who sees the world in that Upper West Side way, and so do all your friends. But you operate under the professional constraint of being impartial, or at least appearing impartial. Suddenly Trump does something so dramatic that a signal goes through the media hive: The constraint of impartiality has been lifted.
It’s bad for journalism as an institution. It may be bad for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign—and hence for the country if you think Trump is a national emergency. But would you be able to resist surrendering to the frisson of liberation, the immediate gratification of shouting “LIAR!”? And as you did surrender, wouldn’t you feel a twinge of gratitude to the man who made it possible?