Words matter, so let’s start with the ones that flew out of our 45th president’s mouth, which created a firestorm over the long weekend. Specifically:
“You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden!”
It sounded as if Donald Trump was referencing a non-existent terrorist attack that occurred “last night in Sweden,” but no one can say for certain—yet an avalanche of headlines extrapolated his bumbling statement to its seemingly logical conclusion. Here’s a quick rundown:
Trump Appears To Fabricate Swedish Terror Attack
Trump invents fake attack on Sweden
People Are Confused After Trump Alluded to Terror Attack in Sweden That Never Happened
Trump’s invention of a Swedish terrorist attack was funny. But it likely comes from a dark place
Our President Cited a Terrorist Attack In Sweden That Didn’t Happen
Trump Made Up a Swedish Terrorist Attack
The Daily Beast:
Colbert Mocks Trump’s Fake Sweden Terror Attack: ‘When Will It Begin?!’
Social media mocks Trump for making up Sweden attack
J.K. Rowling has the best response to Trump’s non-existent Sweden attack
Chelsea Clinton Reacts to Trump’s Fake Sweden Attack
At no point did Donald Trump ever say that an attack occurred. It seemed like that’s what he was suggesting, but given his roundabout, stream-of-consciousness way of talking, it could seem like he says a lot of things. Just because he’s being sloppy with his words doesn’t mean the media has to follow suit. Once it was revealed that Trump was referencing a Fox News segment “last night” talking about rising crime in Sweden, the narrative had already been written, and many in the media continued to falsely claim that Trump said something he didn’t.
Did Fox News Lead Trump to Believe There Was a Terror Attack in Sweden?
Trump explains odd rally reference to attack in Sweden
Did Trump Think There Was an Attack in Sweden Because of a Tucker Carlson Segment?
The Independent wins for the worst headline of this entire saga, as they put quotes around words the president never said: Donald Trump admits his ‘Sweden attack’ comments were based on debunked Fox News report.
This is not hard. We have video of this speech, and all we in the media must do is accurately print Trump’s words, and let his own confusion sink him. Instead, the media gave President Bannon a legitimate weapon to use in the White House’s escalating war against “fake news.” Donald Trump can now justifiably claim that his statement was mischaracterized—at best, because a bunch of editors wanted to generate clicks using the word “attack,” and at worst, because the media is trying to punch back with equal force. We’re referees, not players.
To be fair, not all outlets went this irresponsible route.
Donald Trump Explains Sweden Terror Comment That Baffled a Nation
Trump’s Sweden comment raises questions
NY Daily News:
President Trump attributes Swedish terror remark to a Fox News interview
You may not think this is a big deal since Trump was clearly baiting his audience to live inside his own unreality—plus, this administration has already made up one nonexistent terrorist attack—but the central role of the media is to accurately portray reality. When we’re quoting someone, this job becomes even more paramount. Imagine if you were being interviewed, and in the final copy, the writer printed their assumptions using your words, you’d be pretty pissed off, right? This is no different.
Just because Donald Trump has no credibility doesn’t mean that the media should stoop to his level. He’s still the president, and the media must approach their coverage of him with the seriousness they would afford a normal commander-in-chief. By claiming that Trump made up an attack when he didn’t, not only did the media do his work for him by solidifying this inference (51% of Trump voters now believe the Bowling Green Massacre was real, and this will no doubt repeat itself now that the media has given wall-to-wall coverage of another nonexistent terror attack), but they gave Trump a legitimate example to use whenever he cries foul about how he gets covered.
Plus, there’s President Bannon’s Leninist angle to consider. He is very much playing a long game, and this portion from Vladimir Lenin’s writings should have a constant presence in every journalist’s mind:
“The art of any propagandist and agitator consists in his ability to find the best means of influencing any given audience, by presenting a definite truth, in such a way as to make it most convincing, most easy to digest, most graphic, and most strongly impressive.”
It is a definite truth that the media misrepresented Donald Trump’s confusing remarks, and now Bannon has more ammunition to portray it in a convincing, easy to digest, most graphic, and most strongly impressive light. It is genuinely disheartening that the media cannot see the obvious game afoot.
1. Trump says a batshit crazy thing(s), and implies additional nonsense.
2. Media reports the implication as the same thing as the batshit crazy.
3. Bannon uses this mistake to discredit future legitimate stories.
Donald Trump has the media rattled. Every president has always considered themselves to be under siege, but none have ever declared outright war on the media. By choosing to meet Trump on this invented battlefield, the media is ensuring that they will not win—as everything is played on President Bannon’s terms.
If they simply do their job and try to cover Trump as normally as possible, the war will become a stalemate at best. But by trying to get out in front of our most confusing and dishonest president ever, the media sets themselves up to be discredited even more than they already have. After eight years of relative silence over one of the worst presidencies ever for journalists, many hysterical complaints over Trump’s words and tweets ring a bit hollow when referenced against the fact that Barack Obama used the Espionage Act more than all previous presidents combined, and even named a journalist a co-conspirator in a case. There are legitimate reasons behind the widespread anger at the media, as they have played to the level of the last few presidents, instead of remaining on the high ground that journalism provides for all of us.
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business and media editor, as well as a staff writer for politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.