Why is the media cheering Trump for his campaign of lies?
It’s gone from bad to worse: After spending years refusing to call Donald Trump a liar, the press is now toasting his reelection campaign, which is built on lies.
"That campaigns are now being fought largely online is hardly a revelation, yet only one political party seems to have gotten the message," The New York Times recently reported in a major story on Trump's reelection run. "While the Trump campaign has put its digital operation firmly at the center of the president’s re-election effort, Democrats are struggling to internalize the lessons of the 2016 race and adapt to a political landscape shaped by social media." The message the Times presented was unmistakable: Trump's reelection campaign is trouncing Democrats online. (Trump had gotten "the message.") Separately, the Times in another piece announced, "The technical superiority and sophistication of the president’s digital campaign is a hidden advantage of incumbency."
What did the Times almost completely ignore in its flattering reports about Trump's "web operation"? His reelection campaign is built around spreading lies online. Somehow, that unprecedented presidential campaign strategy wasn't considered to be the newsworthy one.
"His 2020 campaign, flush with cash, is poised to dominate online again, according to experts on both ends of the political spectrum, independent researchers and tech executives," the newspaper reported. That was the key angle. Also, Trump isn't necessarily pushing lies online. Instead, he’s creating "emotionally charged content" and "provocative ads" featuring "divisive themes" and touting an "angry partisan approach," the paper reported.
If a Democratic candidate such as Joe Biden unleashed a torrent of fabricated and outlandish claims via Facebook campaign ads, it’s highly doubtful that the Times would marvel at how savvy Biden was being and how he was outsmarting Republicans with a digital strategy that relied on constant bouts of purposeful misinformation. Instead, Biden's constant lies would be the Times' obvious area of focus. And the brazen untruths wouldn't be gently referred to as "provocative content."
Yet with the Trump coverage, the fact that his campaign is wallowing in aggressive misinformation isn't presented as the most newsworthy element. Instead, Trump's lies are depicted as being part of a formidable, winning online formula that has desperate, overwhelmed Democrats trying to catch up.
"The campaign under Mr. [Brad] Parscale is focused on pushing its product—Mr. Trump—by churning out targeted ads, aggressively testing the content and collecting data to further refine its messages," the Times marveled.
At least a recent Washington Post report gently noted so many of Trump's online ads aren’t true: "Some of the ads accused the freshman [Democratic] lawmakers of making “pro-terrorist remarks,” which they have not done." But that salient fact garnered just a passing mention.
When the press touts his online reelection campaign as a masterful stroke of marketing and largely ignores the fact that it's built on a mountain of falsehoods, this all amounts to another way that Trump's signature lies get normalized. Has the press become so numb to Trump's torrent of untruths that news outlets are prepared to shrug their collective shoulders when blatant lies emerge as the driving force of a U.S. presidential campaign? That's stunning, considering that just a few years ago the same news outlets manned fact-checking teams to put campaign ads under a microscope in search of misleading information.
It's the same type of normalizing Facebook now does when it throws up its hands and says politicians in the Trump era are allowed to lie in their ads, knowing full well there's only one party that traffics in lies incessantly: the Republican Party.
One Trump ad clearly has been labeled false by the press, in part because it became the centerpiece of a campaign battle over Facebook's porous policy retarding the truth. The clip from the Trump campaign erroneously claimed that Joe Biden offered the Ukraine government $1 billion in U.S. aid if it stopped an investigation into a company tied to his son. The preposterous claims had already been debunked, and CNN refused to play the ad. But Facebook rejected the Biden campaign’s demand the ad be taken down. The lie-riddled Trump video has been viewed well over 5 million times.
Meanwhile, also being quietly set aside by the press in its mostly positive reporting on Trump's online reelection machinery is the fact there's no proof yet that any of it is working. For instance, the Times noted that in an attempt to change the narrative, the GOP campaign quickly spent more than $10 million in the wake of Democrats launching the impeachment inquiry one month ago. "The biggest political crisis of Trump’s presidency is translated into an “impeachment defense task force” to fire up supporters and tap their wallets," the paper reported, clearly impressed. (Trump's impeachment-related ads have been viewed tens of millions of times on Facebook.) Because spending more money automatically means success, apparently.
Yet since that time, the percentage of Americans in favor of impeachment and of removing Trump from office has only increased. Overall, there's been no improvement in Trump's reelection chances since his campaign started spending tens of millions of dollars on Facebook ads. Doesn't that suggest Trump's team is flushing away a lot of money online? Doesn't that suggest the Trump campaign might not be so savvy and that Democrats might not actually be in disarray?
Recently, Axios touted the fact that online, "Trump attracted three times the attention of all the Democratic candidates combined, underscoring how he consumes the social media conversation." But again, there's no evidence that people talking online about Trump more often than they're talking about Democratic candidates means good news for him, since it’s obvious that lots of people online hate Trump and that's why they talk about him.
Trump's online reelection campaign is unlike any in American history, simply because it's willfully detached from facts and the truth. It's stunning that the Beltway press looks at something that reckless and labels it super savvy.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.