Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Donald Trump manipulates the media by lying strategically. Upon identifying a lie, journalists refute the lie, but too-often end their articles believing that completes their job. The lie does not make the story; the lie provides evidence for some larger story.
Journalists fail to meet their customers’ expectations when they do not follow through to explain that larger story. When journalists reject how a liar frames an issue, they can see the liar’s objective. When they refute the lie and then complete the larger story, media organizations better retain their audiences.
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”-PT Barnum
Lying during the 2016 Campaign
The sheer volume of Trump’s lies undermines the possibility he made mistakes or possessed inaccurate information. They reflect a broader strategy. During the 2016 campaign, lies rolled off his tongue. Politifact concluded that Trump made nine times as many “Pants on Fire” lies as Hillary Clinton.1 The Washington Post gave Trump 59 four-Pinocchio ratings, and Clinton only seven (mostly related to her email situation).2 The modern era of presidential campaigns had seen nothing like that before 2016.
Trump lied in the face of recorded statements to the contrary. He repeatedly stated he always opposed the Iraq War, but he stated on a contemporaneous audio recording that he supported it.3 He claimed the United States faced a 42 percent unemployment rate, although the Department of Labor calculated it at only 5 percent.4 Trump claimed he watched thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrate after the September 11, 2001, attacks, although no contemporary evidence exists.5
During the campaign, the media replayed clips of Trump lying over and over. The fact-checkers worked overtime producing voluminous analyses of his statements.
Trump did not stop lying upon becoming president.
Trump did not stop lying after his inauguration. During the first weekend in March, he tweeted that Obama had wire-tapped Trump Towers during the election: Watergate-style politics. When asked for evidence, Trump had none.6 The media spent the weekend speculating whether Obama did that. They researched the legal requirements for wiretapping a presidential candidate.7 Focusing solely on the lie gives the liar control over the story.
“What I tell you three times is true.”-Lewis Carroll
Trump accomplished at least three objectives with that lie.
First, he distracted the nation by sucking the air out of the room.8 During that week, the media caught his new Attorney General perjuring himself as more ties to Russia emerged. The fresh lie shifted media organizations’ attention away from the other scandals.
Second, the lie gave Trump more free media. Trump’s comments during the campaign outraged journalists so much that the media gave him $5 billion in free media.9 “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” PT Barnum taught us. Even when the facts of the real world conflict with Trump’s statements, the media produces volumes of reports analyzing his statements.
Third, some of Trump’s supporters believed the lie, so he gave them more reason to hate President Obama and to resist allegations against him. Unfortunately, repeating themes—even lies—increases the likelihood that people will believe them.10
Lewis Carroll mocked repetition as an argument technique in his poem, the Hunting of the Snark:
“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried, As he landed his crew with care; Supporting each man on the top of the tide By a finger entwined in his hair.
“Just the place for a Snark!” I have said it twice: That alone should encourage the crew. “Just the place for a Snark!” I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.11
When journalists decline to search out the reason for the lie, they let the liar take the public hunting for a Snark.
Developing the reason for the lie.
Some principled journalists may reject the possibility of explaining why the liar lies without hard evidence, but that need not stop them from completing their stories. Of course, the liar would never state why he lies—that would undermine the lie’s effectiveness at meeting its hidden objective. Usually, only the liar knows why he lied.
Lacking access to the liar’s motivation does not leave a journalist without tools for telling the complete story. Modern journalists commonly seek to avoid bias by presenting the other side’s position. To avoid the bias from the impacts of the lie and to present both sides of a lie, journalists can ask the lying politician’s opponents the liar lied; they can report a reasonable response.
Whenever a media organization refrains from telling the whole story prompted by a lie, its consumers feel empty. Psychologist Abraham Maslow found this source for the emptiness:
Facts [or circumstances] don’t just lie there, like oatmeal in a bowl; they do all sorts of things. They group themselves, and they complete themselves; an incompleted series ‘calls for’ a good completion. The crooked picture on the wall begs to be straightened; the incompleted problem perseverates and annoys us until we finish it.”12
When customers finish a report and feel empty, they will have less desire to return to that media organization because they risk learning more incomplete news. Media organizations could better retain their customers if they not only refute the lie, but also complete the story by explaining why the liar lied.
1 Politifact, Comparing Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump on the Truth-O-Meter, at http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/lists/people/comparing-hillary-clinton-donald-trump-truth-o-met (last visited Mar. 11, 2017).
2 Glen Kessler, The biggest Pinocchios of Election 2016, Washington Post (Nov. 4, 2016), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/11/04/the-biggest-pinocchios-of-election-2016/?utm_term=.7e6278a137c7
6 Glenn Kessler, Trump’s ‘evidence’ for Obama wiretap claims relies on sketchy, anonymously sourced reports, Washington Post (Mar. 5, 2017), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/03/05/trumps-evidence-for-obama-wiretap-claims-relies-on-sketchy-anonymously-sourced-reports/?utm_term=.a3c0e488289c
7 Yochi Dreazen, Sorry, Mr. President, but Obama couldn’t simply order the FBI to tap your phones, Vox.com (Mar. 7, 2017), at http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/3/7/14836238/trump-obama-tweet-wiretap-phone-illegal-watergate-fbi-accuse-comey.
8 James Hohmann, The Daily 202: Wiretapping allegations accomplished what Trump wanted – but may backfire bigly, Washington Post (Mar. 6, 2017), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2017/03/06/daily-202-wiretapping-allegations-accomplished-what-trump-wanted-but-may-backfire-bigly/58bca8bde9b69b1406c75d42.
9 Emily Stewart, Donald Trump Rode $5 Billion in Free Media to the White House, The Street (Nov. 20, 2016), at https://www.thestreet.com/story/13896916/1/donald-trump-rode-5-billion-in-free-media-to-the-white-house.html.
10 Maria Konnikova, Trump’s Lies vs. Your Brain, Politico Magazine (Jan./Feb. 2017), available at http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/donald-trump-lies-liar-effect-brain-214658.
11 (Emphasis added.)
12 Toward a Psychology of Being 114 (3rd ed. 1998).