Saturday July 21, 2018

Seares: Shoot down a lie on sight. Before people swallow it.

[Related Media’s Public article: “Calling the lie what it is,” Jan. 28, 2017]

U.S. President Donald Trump, in his latest blast on press coverage of the president during a rally Tuesday (Aug. 22) in Phoenix, Arizona, alleged that the “fake media” omitted parts of his statements on the clash between neo-Nazis and white supremacists who were protesting in Charlottesville, Virginia and the counter-protesters. He also charged CNN with shutting its cameras while he was still speaking.

Both were bald lies.

It was Trump at the rally who left out the parts of his controversial statements (“hatred and bigotry on both sides, on both sides”) which drew criticisms from many sectors, including his fellow Republicans. And when on stage he heckled CNN for ending its coverage, he was in fact being covered up to end of his speech by the media he shamed.

One of a kind

Trump’s complaints against media are often blatant falsehoods; clearly, he doesn’t care if he is shown to be actually lying through his teeth. But he could be one of its kind, a “sui generis,” an aberration in the profile of public officials.

Many of those in our government, especially the elected ones, lie, if their political reputation is at stake. But very few on this side of the world, specifically in the Philippines and Cebu, lie the way Trump has done, since the campaign until now. The New York Times has kept a running tally on his distortions and perversions of facts. It hurdled the 100 mark months ago.

Troubling behavior

It’s troubling behavior: how Trump could still utter an untruth and latch on to it, despite contrary evidence presented or apparent to most everyone else but himself. Trump watchers have long concluded that he wouldn’t care for the consequences of lying as long as his political base--the 30-40% of the electorate--continues to support him, even with incresing evidence that he could be mentally unfit to be president.

Thank God, we don’t have a Trump here. President Duterte, despite his occasional tirades against a number of media outlets, hasn’t come close to the level of Trump in bashing media.

Valid complaints

Besides, President Duterte, as well as local politicians who castigate media now and then, may have valid complaints. Hear them out, ask for specifics.

What would be worrisome:

-- If those complaints were based on falsehoods as many criticisms from Trump and his surrogates clearly are;

-- If media would ignore its own lapses and refuse to recognize and correct them.

Media would be playing into the manipulator’s hands if, like Trump and others who’d seek to devalue newspapers and broadcast stations, media would also peddle the untruth or, short of that, commit these errors or shortcomings:

■ NOT GETTING IT. A governor once complained that reporters at times failed to tell the story right. While “I-was-misquoted” is a refuge of politicians who regret what they spew out, some reporters just don’t get it sometimes.

■ CONFUSING THE PROCEDURE. A judge complained at a forum that reporters sometimes don’t know court procedure or how to read a decision. Apparently, they’re too lazy to read the law or proud to ask from those who know. One lawyer pitched in with the comment: Some stories can make you squirm.

■ NOT GIVING WHAT THE READER NEEDS. Facts are incomplete, some basic questions are not answered or the story is not clear enough. “Don’t ask me,” the reader will say, “I don’t know, that’s why I read.” Tangled issues are often not threshed out and are left hanging for some time or simply forgotten for a fresh issue. Or something is wrong with the sequence or manner of telling.

■ OBSCURING WHAT’S IMPORTANT. The crucial information is buried paragraphs down for a trivial side issue. If what hurts the public person is thus obscured, he won’t gripe. Otherwise, he’ll howl. A mayor once whispered to me, “You editors don’t know what’s important.”

Media errors

Those are legitimate complaints. They become deceptive if the gripes on media coverage are used to deflect accountability of public officials. Worse, if the complaints are based on lies.

Media response must be to expose them for what they are. CNN’s Anderson Cooper used split screen to show two Trumps: one Trump revising history, lying and concocting; the other Trump repeating what he actually said. Two Trumps contradicting each other. New York Times, using graphics, compared Trump’s conflicting statements, the falsehood in stark black and white.

Virus spreads

To each its own device, but a lie that involves public interest must be shot down on sight by a news organization. Falsehoods from public officials or anyone else on a matter of community concern inflict worse damage if people accept them as truth. On digital wings, the virus can spread pretty fast.

And media must be as efficient and thorough in correcting its own lapses and errors. It cannot call out untruths from others if it adds to the pile its own lies.