A Case Study in Whimpering

How likely is it that we will soon establish that Donald Trump flat-out lied when he gloated on Sunday morning that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died “running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering, crying, and screaming all the way”?

I suspect not long.

But most news consumers will be surprised.

That’s because they didn’t read or see any pushback against Trump’s comments – which, even if true, were manifestly sadistic, inappropriately taunting, and highly suggestive of some disturbing interpersonal dynamic.

Trump has a long history of lying about, well, almost everything. And as New York Times reporters Peter Baker, Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper to their credit told readers fairly high up in their lead story, the video feeds Trump saw could not have detected any whimpering and no other officials independently confirmed Trump’s account.

Both the Times and the Washington Post also had an admirable number of accompanying stories delving into the unlikelihood of Trump’s account, its inflammatory nature, its crass stage management, its contrast with Obama’s tone, how his own Syria policy nearly undermined the raid, and so on.

But lead stories in the Post and the Associated Press were among those that were high on stenography and low to nonexistent on skepticism.

And what did low information voters hear?

The CBS Evening News followed the White House script, with the intro intoning “President Trump takes a victory lap,” and showing Trump saying “he died like a dog. He died like a coward.”

Correspondent David Martin offered yet more quotes from Trump, including the one about “whimpering, crying, and screaming all the way,” without an iota of skepticism.

Martha Raddatz, on ABC’s World News Tonight, offered up extensive quotes of Trump providing what she called “stark detail.”

And on the NBC Nightly News, foreign correspondent Richard Engel essentially let Trump narrate the whole story, although White House correspondent Hallie Jackson did offer up some back and forth on Trump’s decision to notify the Russian government, but not  congressional Democrats.

In short, the reports on the major broadcast networks were not substantially different in tone and content from what Fox News viewers saw and heard on Fox Report Weekend.

Meanwhile, on front pages today, Trump’s image was dominant — see the Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News front pages – in contrast to the dominance of Osama bin Laden’s image after Barack Obama much more solemnly announced his death in 2011.

The likelihood that Trump lied ought to have been a major element in the coverage on Sunday in more outlets than just the Times.

There were, in fact, arguably multiple lies. For instance, as Politico Magazine contributing editor David Freelander asked:

And we’ve rarely seen Trump’s profound insecurity and sense of grievance so overtly displayed as it was on Sunday in his choice of language and his attempt to diminish the killing of bin Laden during Obama’s presidency.

Rolling Stone political writer Jamil Smith was a bit blunter on Twitter than one could reasonable ask from mainstream journalists. But he was also closer to reality:

Dartmouth government professor Nicholas Mill mocked New York Times reporter David E. Sanger’s strongly neocon geopolitical analysis:

One final note: In a rare example of clickbait headlines actually serving the public interest, CNN advertised a feeble analysis by Chris Cillizza as containing “The 41 most shocking lines” from Trump’s announcement (Cillizza himself could only bring himself to call them “uh, notable”) and NBC trumpeted a bunch of straight quotes with absolutely no commentary at all as “Fifteen stunning moments.” Which they were.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Dan,

    Great content. I’m a big fan of the work you’re doing on this site. Just wanted to note that the links you provided to newseum.org take readers to the headlines of WaPo, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News for the day they click the link, not the day this article was written. I’m afraid I don’t have a solution to suggest, but thought perhaps you might know of one. In any case, I’ll continue to share your content with my friends and family and hope you continue to produce excellent analyses of political news coverage.

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