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Contrary to Trump’s assertions, reporters do not feel ‘able to write whatever they want to write’

It is, quite frankly, President Trump who says “whatever he wants,” and an astonishing portion of what he wants to say is false.

President Donald Trump departing for travel to Pennsylvania from the White House on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Los Angeles Times (among many other papers) reports that, during a media availability while meeting in the Oval Office with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Donald Trump said that “it is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.”

The current incumbent must be brilliant in some way that I am unable to appreciate or am not used to describing as brilliant. After all, as he would gladly remind me if he knew I existed, he’s president and I’m not. Point taken.

In order to understand his brilliance better, I think I would need to know much more about several areas of psychology, mass psychology, individual psychology, and aberrant psychology. But, from my modest post as a scribbler I can relate to him only by noting what he does and says and tweets. (He says and tweets a lot more than he does.) And I do try to figure him out and occasionally cling to some crumb of hope that he’s not as bad and dangerous as he often seems (at least to me).

But from what he says and tweets and does, he seems to put himself in a poor position to render judgment about who does or doesn’t write (or say) whatever they want to write (or say).

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Not meaning to brag (and certainly acknowledging that Trump knows more about several subjects than I do) I do have a lifetime’s experience in the craft of journalism. Most of it (before I somehow lucked into my current fabulous gig) was spent as a real reporter writing fact-filled news stories in a so-called objective voice at three newspapers over 35 years. And I can tell you (and I would tell him, if he gave me a call) that reporters for respectable news outlets are incredibly, insanely committed to factual accuracy and do not write “whatever they want to write” unless they have good reason to believe it is factual.

So I know this: Reporters do not feel “able to write whatever they want to write,” and they certainly don’t feel able to report falsehoods as if they were facts.

Get your facts right is basically the first five priorities of regular, old-fashioned news reporters. Before you get to worrying about how to express them, and which ones to put first, you must be factually accurate. If you get a fact wrong and someone reports you to the editor or ombudsman, you will end up having to go through the odious and humiliating (but necessary) process of admitting your factual errors and correcting them.

And let me get this out before I lose you: Presidents are also supposed to tell the truth. They don’t always do it, but they are supposed to, and if they don’t tell the truth it’s the news media’s job to point it out and say what the truth is – although, if we’re going to be painstakingly correct about it, it’s their job to say what the facts are, and leave the search for “truth” to the philosophers.

Now it so happens, thanks to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that it’s close to a true statement that “the press is able to write whatever they want to write.” Although “able” to write falsehoods only refers to what you can get away with if you are sued for libel.

At least as a matter of constitutional law as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan (if the current incumbent cares about that stuff), the media pretty much CAN write whatever they want to write, and if you sue them, you will have to prove not only that it was false and caused you damage, but that they knowingly published the falsehood with what the court called “actual malice.” Of course, that’s just constitutional law, nothing about which Trump knows or cares.

Because, the thing is, Trump is in the running for the title of lyingest president ever. The Supreme Court standard of “reckless disregard” is hard to meet or to prove, but it sure looks like the current incumbent is incredibly reckless with the truth, or maybe just hostile to it.

We didn’t have the journalistic sub-genre of “fact-checkers” in Lincoln’s day, nor even in Nixon’s, but we’ve had it for a while now and Trump has broken all the marks for “Pinocchios” and “Pants on Fire” ratings. It’s really pretty shocking. Before Trump, we all knew that politicians sometimes shaded the truth, but we’ve never seen anything like this volume of mendacity.

Before Trump, we sort of thought there was some kind of limit to just how many, how big, how false the lies were that a president could get away with telling. After nine months of President Trump it seems those of us who thought that were wrong.

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It is, quite frankly, Trump who says “whatever he wants,” and an astonishing portion of what he wants to say is false, so false so often that one has to wonder if he recognizes the difference between truth and falseness. It’s hard for a person with a normal respect for the factual accuracy to believe that he can get away with this, but it turns out, so far, he can.

One more thing I should have included much higher up in this rant, is what set off Trump’s disgust with the media’s lying ways. It was this quadruple-bylined NBC story,  based on multiple but unnamed sources, about a July 20 meeting/briefing between the president and several top officials about the quantity and quality of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. According to the sources, Trump argued for a huge increase in the U.S, nuclear arsenal, which is already by far the biggest and best in the world.

This meeting is said to be the event that set off the now famous (but unverified) moment when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the president was a “moron,” with a possible f-word in front of the m-word.