Trump against the New York Times. Who wins?

It’s unlikely that in the ongoing dispute between President Donald Trump and the news media one side is completely right and the other is fully wrong. In fact, much may be learned from both perspectives. Yet the way they present their views may do them and the public a disservice. As many arguments go, each side tries to invalidate the other’s perspective (rather than both critically evaluating what each brings and finding solutions). Sunday’s coverage of the exchanges between Trump and the New York Times’ publisher A.G. Sulzberger is the latest example.

Errors and valid points (Trump)

The president has charged traditional news outlets with publishing “fake news,” and even released “The Highly-Anticipated 2017 Fake News Awards” last year. It’s disparaging to call a news outlet “fake” and “failing,” and to call news reports “crap,” as he’s done. The descriptions may also negatively shape people’s perception of the news media and further intensify polarization in the U.S.

It’s not to say reporters don’t sometimes get things wrong — they do, and so does Trump. On Sunday, for instance, he tweeted that “confidence in the media is at an all time low!” According to Gallup, which has been polling the public on the subject yearly since 1997, public confidence in media reached an all time low in 2016, but it has since increased from 32 to 41 percent. Is Trump’s statement an error or “fake news”? Trump has every right to criticize errors (and he does!), but saying they’re publishing “fake news,” possibly deliberately, misrepresents most news outlets.

When The Associated Press reported the above, it didn’t mention that Trump’s claim about public confidence in media was incorrect. Not qualifying or correcting the comment could lead readers to believe it’s true.

Some of Trump’s statements are also questionable. For instance, he tweeted Sunday:

When the media – driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome – reveals internal deliberations of our government, it truly puts the lives of many, not just journalists, at risk! Very unpatriotic!

Trump Derangement Syndrome. According to Yahoo News, the term describes people “whose dislike of the man makes them incapable of seeing any good in his policies or decisions.” Trump’s point here is relevant: there have been instances when the press’ disclosures to the American public have been inopportune or have posed national security problems. So why dilute the point with a mock diagnosis?

In his tweets Sunday, Trump also said some outlets negatively slant what he deems are his administration’s “positive achievements.” This happens to be true, and it applies to this analysis, as the four outlets slanted the coverage against Trump (more on this below). By the same token, other outlets positively slant the same achievements, and Trump hasn’t criticized that, so there’s an inconsistency. Now let’s look at what the other side says.

Errors and valid points (Sulzberger)

A.G. Sulzberger reportedly accepted the meeting at the White House so he could express his concerns about Trump’s criticisms of the press and their possible effects. But Sulzberger’s statement, and the New York Times’ reporting on it, included some unsubstantiated reasoning. For example, he said he told Trump that his “inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

It’s possible that Trump’s claims about the press, some of which are overgeneralizations or falsehoods, influence those who issue threats against journalists. What’s questionable here is Sulzberger’s claim that it “will lead to violence.”

The line between offensive or derogatory speech, and even hate speech and acts of violence isn’t explained thoroughly. Trump has called the press “the enemy of the people,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean people will issue threats or enact violence against journalists simply because he said that. On one hand, Trump’s criticism of media outlets doesn’t make people stop reading them or even hold the same view as he does. On the other hand (perhaps a more extreme notion), if Trump ever asks or orders people to enact violence against journalists, that doesn’t mean people would act accordingly. So claiming that what Trump says “will lead to violence” is speculation, and distracts from the personal responsibility of those who would threaten or attack journalists.

Sulzberger also said:

I warned that [Trump’s criticism of the press] was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.

Similar to the previous statement, Sulzberger didn’t explain how those things would happen. Specifically, he didn’t substantiate how criticizing the press is “undermining the democratic ideals of our nation.” Isn’t the right to voice such criticisms part of those same ideals, and in particular free speech? (For further reading, here’s a Knife analysis on whether the media should have greater freedoms than the U.S. president.)

Again, Sulzberger does have a point in that, as commander-in-chief and a former celebrity, what Trump says can influence many people’s decisions, so Trump may want to measure his words carefully in this regard.

The dramatics

Consider how Trump expressed his criticism of the media’s negative slant towards him and his administration.

The failing New York Times and the Amazon Washington Post do nothing but write bad stories even on very positive achievements — and they will never change!

Here’s where the president sort of shoots himself in the foot: The terms marked above are spin — vague, subjective or dramatic language that distorts otherwise factual information. Spin often supports slant, and here the bias invites readers to view the outlets negatively and in a perpetual way (after all, they’ll “never change”). What does this mean? Trump’s using the same distortion techniques he’s criticizing the press for using!

In his rebuttal, Sulzberger also used the same distortions, except with the opposite slant (prepare to see red). After referencing Trump’s “anti-press rhetoric,” he said:

I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous … I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence … I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists.

The distortions obscure the points each side is trying to make, and gets in the way of evaluating them objectively. The media’s reporting can have the same effect. Examine Politico’s statement below. Its article was the most distorted of the four analyzed:

The Times has long been a convenient foil for Trump, a regular Times reader who has a fascination with the paper despite his loud criticism of its coverage.

A data-based version of that statement would be: Trump reads the Times and has criticized its coverage. Considering Trump’s and Sulzberger’s statements were already dramatized and slanted, the outlet’s own distortion simply compounds the same problem.

As noted in a previous Knife analysis, the media can act as a type of checks-and-balances system on government, and the president can also hold the media accountable — it’s a two-way street. However, both sides can increase their odds of getting their message across if they use data-based criticism or reporting. Simply having Trump and the Times battle it out as they’ve done isn’t enough. Who wins? Neither. Who loses? In a way, we all do.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media