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Donald Trump

As Trump, media attack each other's credibility, who can audiences trust?


WASHINGTON (Circa) — During President Donald Trump’s rally in Nashville Tuesday, New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis tweeted about the “depressing” sight of a young boy “pointing iPhone at me & other reporters & snapping pix while screaming ‘FAKE NEWS!’”

“A child who will grow up believing a free & fair press is the enemy, a bad thing, to be mocked & hated,” Davis lamented.

Twelve hours later, Davis’ reporting would be held up by Trump as a supposed example of the media dishonesty the boy was screaming about.

“The Failing and Corrupt @nytimes estimated the crowd last night at “1000 people,” when in fact it was many times that number - and the arena was rockin,’” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “This is the way they demean and disparage. They are very dishonest people who don’t ‘get’ me, and never did!”

“He worked his audience of about 1,000 into a frenzy,” Davis’ original article read. After Trump’s complaint, the number was updated to 5,500 and a correction was appended to the story.

“My estimate was way off, and we have corrected our story to reflect the fire marshal’s estimate of 5,500 people. When we get it wrong, we say so,” Davis tweeted in response to Trump.

In a statement claiming the mistake was “yet another blatant attempt by the fake news media to deny the truth about President Trump’s success,” Trump’s reelection campaign asserted 8,000 people attended the rally, significantly more than the fire marshal estimated.

This is only the latest in a series of dustups over media mistakes that began well before Trump took office. Since reporters first questioned claims he made in the speech announcing his campaign, Trump’s list of grievances with the press has been growing.

“It went from a cold war of curiosity at the beginning of the campaign and now it’s a hot war of flame-throwing,” said Nikki Usher, author of “Making News at The New York Times” and an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Trump has recently escalated his rhetoric, alleging a systematic effort by the press to undermine his success.

“The Fake Mainstream Media has, from the time I announced I was running for President, run the most highly sophisticated & dishonest Disinformation Campaign in the history of politics,” he tweeted Tuesday. “No matter how well WE do, they find fault. But the forgotten men & women WON, I’m President!”

When Trump takes shots at the press, it is often with ammunition they have handed to him with unforced errors, inaccurate reports, and careless mistakes. Some are as small as crowd counts, but others involve more substantive subjects like foreign policy and FBI investigations.

Over the weekend, a number of reporters and editors at major media outlets erred in sharing a photo they believed showed migrant children caged by the Trump administration. Though it was offered up by some as an example of the cruelty of Trump’s immigration policies, the image was from 2014, when the Obama administration was struggling with an influx of minors at the border.

“Democrats mistakenly tweet 2014 pictures from Obama’s term showing children from the Border in steel cages,” Trump tweeted. “They thought it was recent pictures in order to make us look bad, but backfires.”

Trump also complained recently about what he says was a misrepresentation of comments he made calling some undocumented immigrants “animals.” He maintained he was only speaking about members of MS-13, and he has since adopted the term many more times to describe the gang.

“Fake News Media had me calling Immigrants, or Illegal Immigrants, ‘Animals.’ Wrong!” Trump tweeted. “They were begrudgingly forced to withdraw their stories. I referred to MS 13 Gang Members as ‘Animals,’ a big difference - and so true. Fake News got it purposely wrong, as usual!”

Media experts say it is unlikely reporters got any of these stories “purposely wrong.”

“Even before Trump, if you made too many errors, let alone ones that seem intentional, you’d be out of a job,” said Scott Talan, a former journalist and mayor who now teaches public and strategic communication at American University. “Today, that is magnified as reporters, and their editors, know any mistake will be pounced on by Trump like a steak thrown to a dog.”

According to Tobe Berkovitz, a political media consultant and a professor of advertising at Boston University, journalists aim to be accurate, but mistakes will inevitably be made.

“The New York Times writes a multitude of stories every day,” he said. “Sooner or later, there is going to be a mistake, and then it’s up to the paper to do a full and proper correction and move forward. The problem is Trump isn’t commenting on the 99 stories that are accurate. He will comment on the one big mistake.”

Given that dynamic, even underestimating the size of a crowd has consequences.

“Is that the most important story in the New York Times on that day?” Berkovitz said. “No, but it is an important story to Donald Trump, and it’s the kind of story he will then use to show the New York Times is biased, is inaccurate, is failing.”

In a time of heightened polarization, journalists face a much higher level of scrutiny than they have in the past.

“There are so many people who are waiting for either the president or the media to make a mistake that the stakes are high,” Usher said. “They’re really high.”

Don Irvine, chairman of conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media, agreed that journalists may not be consciously posting things they know are false, but he argued their disdain for Trump and desire to break news has made them sloppy.

“I think it does reflect some carelessness, but that is also rooted in the fact that they’re trying very hard to find things they can get Trump on,” he said. “They’re so eager to nail the president on something, they’ve kind of forgotten the things they’re supposed to be doing.”

Trump often pounces on any mistakes made by reporters to question the credibility of the entire press corps, broadcasting his outrage to his millions of Twitter followers.

When such mistakes occur, the corrections rarely get the same attention the original reporting did, meaning many are left believing the wrong information. They also illustrate the dangers of social media, where false claims spread rapidly and journalists sometimes retweet headlines and scoops without verifying them.

“If they want to really eliminate some of the fake news problems, they owe it to themselves to slow it down and get the story right,” Irvine said.

If reporters want to combat claims of bias, Usher cautioned that the context through which their work is read extends beyond the margins of a given article. Their tweets flashing frustration or anger at the president can also fuel his accusations of unfairness.

“I don’t think journalists understand the extent to which the level of snark you engage in on social media, or the sarcasm, all of that exists in the framing of your story…,” she said. “If you want people to take you seriously, stop the snark.”

Trump critics sometimes contrast media errors with the president’s own false claims and unwillingness to admit them. As chronicled by Politifact and Factcheck.org, Trump made many untrue statements at the Nashville rally Tuesday, none of which he has acknowledged or apologized for, but experts say his honesty is irrelevant to a debate over the media’s trustworthiness.

“Trying to compare itself to Trump is a loser’s game…,” Talan said. “Newspeople need to do what they are supposed to do and be accurate, complete, fair, and relevant.”

Unlike Trump, who was a boisterous reality TV star and a Manhattan real estate developer prior to running for office, outlets like the New York Times have a reputation to live up to as credible sources of information.

“Trump does not have at least a 100-year history of being the paper of record,” Berkovitz said.

Journalist Leslie Stahl recently recounted a conversation with Trump in which he purportedly revealed the strategy behind his frequent attacks on the press.

“I said, ‘You know that is getting tired, why are you doing this — you’re doing it over and over and it’s boring,’” Stahl said a journalism award presentation. “He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’”

Whether that was the intent or not, it is the cumulative effect his relentless criticisms have generated.

“I think we have a situation where we have one of the most media-savvy presidents whose pulse on the latest form of communication is much better than journalists have ever reckoned with,” Usher said. “That means the rules have changed.”

Polls show Americans are growing increasingly distrustful of the media, particularly Republicans, but trust in Trump is similarly low.

“The key group is that group that might or might not vote for Donald Trump in the future,” Berkovitz said. “Are they going to believe the press is biased and against Trump? If they do, that’s sort of game, set, match for Donald Trump.”

Doubts about the reliability of the mainstream media long predate Trump’s foray into politics, but his attacks on what he deems fake news have echoed on a global scale.

“Trust in news media continues to erode,” Talan said. “‘Fake News’ is now a global popular, and populist, culture piece of phenomena. Add in news reporting errors and, wow, it makes things even worse.”

None of this is good for the press, but Usher suggested transparency about reporting can be an effective antidote.

“I think this is a real opportunity for news organizations to make the case for themselves why they should be trusted and why they should be listened to,” she said.

The imperative to avoid embarrassing errors that fuel Trump’s talking points could also reinforce the principle that being right matters more than being first.

“Everybody wants news fast,” Irvine said. “Maybe we can get people to understand rapid fire news is not necessarily the best news or the most accurate.”

As credibility questions pile up for both the president and the press and each seizes upon every opportunity to discredit the other, Berkovitz suggested one side has more to lose in the long run.

“Donald Trump will be president for a certain term,” he said. “The press has a longer-term future and it should be very careful to preserve its role in democracy. Trump is obviously doing everything he can to destroy that and the press has to be cautious and smart to preserve its future.”

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