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Media coverage of Trump rallies is completely broken

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Trump speaks at North Carolina .Keep America Great. rally.
Trump speaks at North Carolina .Keep America Great. rally.
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The good news is cable news channels, even including Fox News, no longer treat Donald Trump rallies as must-air events. The bad news is that news outlets still cover the redundant, news-free rallies religiously and in the process help spread unchecked Trump lies. This week he was in North Carolina falsely claiming that "America-hating" Democrats were engaged in "a lot of illegal voting." (False.) "Your way of life is under assault by these people," he warned. Rather than use the rallies to shine a spotlight on his pathological, lying ways, most of the coverage simply regurgitates Trump's misinformation and frames it as legitimate news.

Why the incessant coverage for these utterly pointless partisan events? The justification seems pretty straightforward: He's the president of the United States, and when the president of the United makes public pronouncements it's news, and every major news organization must send journalists to make sure they document it.

Nonsense.

This is a perfect example of how Trump has shredded countless Beltway norms during his presidency, while the media clings to old traditions that are completely useless today. Yes, in the past the we-cover-all-presidential-statements approach made sense. But under Trump? No way. Because he couldn't care less about being truthful and in turn, he uses media coverage to amplify his lies.

Here's a simple fix to the problem: Why don't news outlets pool their sources and send three reporters to the rallies to provide documentation of what Trump rambles on about? That way if something truly newsworthy happens, it will get reported. And while they're at it, news organizations should send a tiny pool of reporters to yell questions to Trump during his so-called "Chopper Talk" sessions on the grounds of the White House. (That's where Trump lies relentlessly in response to shouted questions.) There's obviously no reason why a horde of reporters has to gather at both locations in order to hear Trump aggressively spout misinformation. Note that the "Chopper Talk" sessions and the campaign-like rallies are the two forums that produce the most Trump lies, according to recent CNN research.

Is the pool plan a radical idea? Sure, but Trump's a radical president, and the Washington press corps is long past the point where members should have embraced extreme measures to deal with facing a defiant liar in the White House.

But they haven't. They seem entirely comfortable with the current arrangement, whereby Trump lies to them nonstop and they obediently type up the "falsehoods." Here's the dirty little secret that likely drives a lot of the pointless Trump rally coverage: The events provide media outlets with lots of content -- but not news, and there's a big difference. He's staged more than 50 rallies since 2017 and they're all virtually identical, which by definition means they're not news.

Again, it would be one thing if the press covered the rallies and used them as opportunities to forcefully drive home the narrative of the Trump presidency, which is he's a pathological liar who's virtually incapable of speaking a truthful sentence. But, of course, that's not how the rallies are covered. Instead the rallies are covered as a mountain of "Trump said" dispatches, as reporters chronicle his claims while barely taking time to point out that, y'know, the claims aren't true. For full fact-checks of the rallies, news consumers often have to go to a second, sidebar report where the Trump "falsehoods" from the rallies are detailed. The whole process is a complete mess and it reflects media timidity in the age of Trump. And it all stems from a collective fear of calling the bully a liar.

CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale recently stressed how out of whack the rally coverage is, in that most of it just completely glosses over the lies that fuel the events. "I can't tell you the number of times I've fact-checked a Trump rally where he's made 15, 20, 25, sometimes even 30 false claims and then I'll go read the coverage of the rally," said Dale. "And not only is that not the focus, it's not even mentioned."

Indeed, an NBC report this week on the North Carolina rally casually mentioned "Trump trailed off-topic at times" during the event. What the NBC dispatch never mentioned was that Trump unfurled nearly two dozen lies during the event. It's part of the problematic normalizing that the press has done for Trump over the last two years.

Perhaps even more egregious this week was The New York Times' decision to use the North Carolina rally as the backdrop for the newspaper's umpteenth friendly look at Trump loyalists. I'm not sure why "Trump supporters support Trump" is considered news in 2019, but apparently the Times is convinced it's a thing. So a reporter was dispatched to dutifully chronicle how Trump fans at the North Carolina event really, really like Trump. And of course, Trump's blatant racism was watered down and became merely "identity politics." Why? Because if Trump's swimming in racist rhetoric (which he does), that means his supporters are also racist, and that ruins the Times' preferred narrative that they're really just good folks who are so often overlooked. (Reminder: The Times couldn't care less about hardcore Obama supporters three years into his term.)

"Many of Mr. Trump's rally-going supporters said the outings were equally defined by the carnival-like atmosphere that greets attendees even before Mr. Trump speaks," the Times stressed. "It's in the hours before the rally, in the lines for refreshments and sunscreen and knockoff Make America Great Again merchandise, where Mr. Trump's crowds are ripened for the coming spectacle."

Well, least the Times made sure to note that everyone was having fun at Trump's rally. The fact that it was filled with vindictive lies was dutifully brushed aside.

 

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Eric Boehlert is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006). He worked for five years as a senior writer for Salon.com, where he wrote extensively about media and politics. Prior to that, he worked as a (more...)
 

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