At 1:14 p.m. Tuesday, I turned on my office television and immediately heard President Donald Trump say, “Joe Biden is a dummy.”
My set has been tuned to the Fox News Channel since I was asked not to watch horse races all afternoon while screaming “OHPLEASEGODPLEASE!”
But Trump, taking questions on the White House lawn, was on every 24-hour cable news station at that moment, because Trump is the 24-hour news. If he’s not talking, TV hosts are talking about him, and with both Trump and Joe Biden in Iowa on Tuesday, the focus was constant.
Sunday marks the fourth anniversary of Trump’s escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower to announce his run, and to explain that Mexico was purposely sending us rapists and drug dealers. What began in June 2015 is starting anew, and ahead of us lies a 17-month campaign that will feel longer than a Bill de Blasio town hall.
So President Sunshine was talking on TV, and the thought came, as it often does: Why do journalists ask Trump questions and then recount his answers as if there is more than an off-chance they bear any relationship to reality?
Journalists go back and forth about whether we’re too hysterical in foaming at every Trumptacular play. Raging at the president’s plan to have a military parade on the Fourth of July, for instance, when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Martin Van Buren and James Polk all celebrated the holiday that way, and John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower had such parades at their inaugurations, is nutso.
But the more serious fear is that journalists are not sounding the alarm enough. Our president appears to be using his office to enrich himself and his family and is attacking the roots of our democracy: the press, fair elections, the separate and equal powers of Congress and the judiciary, and the regulatory systems that protect the environment, consumers and workers. If you attack the roots enough, even a majestic tree will topple and die.
But watching Trump and reporters Tuesday, part of the answer to how to report on this president seemed obvious: Start by never letting a lie or mistake on his part stand uncorrected in an interview, news conference, debate or story.
In his speech Tuesday, Trump’s attacks on Biden as “a dummy,” “mentally weak,” “a loser,” “even slower than he used to be,” and a vice president picked “off the trash heap,” are shameful and dishonest opinions. They can’t be corrected. But Trump also made many statements that should be labeled as untrue. China is not “paying us billions and billions of dollars” in tariffs. American consumers pay those. China is not “down 20 trillion” in wealth, which would be 40 percent of the total wealth of the nation, a loss that would plunge the world into depression. Trump said, “My poll numbers are great,” but in theoretical matchups against Biden they are uniformly dismal while his aides have been told to hide the bad news. And stopping illegal border crossings won’t stop the “90 percent of our drugs coming through the Southern border,” because the vast majority of that comes through legal checkpoints.
The Washington Post says Trump’s total of false and misleading claims as president exceeds 10,700. Often, those statements appear in news stories or televised speeches without them being explained as untrue. But journalists are not supposed to print or broadcast lies from anyone, ever, without correcting them. And amid the hand-wringing about how to cover Trump in this second campaign, that simple rule would be a good start.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.