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Sullivan writes: "After Tuesday night's debacle in the Oval Office, television network executives should be spending the day in their spacious offices practicing a simple word: No."

Members of American Legion Post 416 watch President Donald Trump speak on January 8, 2019 in Encinitas, California. (photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty)
Members of American Legion Post 416 watch President Donald Trump speak on January 8, 2019 in Encinitas, California. (photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty)

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Trump's Oval Office Address Was a Pure Propaganda Opportunity. Networks Shouldn't Allow It Next Time.

By Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post

09 January 19


fter Tuesday night’s debacle in the Oval Office, television network executives should be spending the day in their spacious offices practicing a simple word: No.

No, Mr. President, you may not break into prime-time programming to fundraise and mislead.

They’ll need to practice because you can be sure that the request will come again. And again.

Let’s be clear: There was no — zero — news in President Trump’s address to the nation last night.

There were high-drama quotes: “crisis of the soul.” There was fearmongering: “I’ve met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration.”

But there wasn’t anything of substance that we haven’t heard many times before.

And all the fact-checking in the world — worthy as it is — can’t make a dent in the spread of misinformation that such an opportunity gives the president.

The casual viewer would probably come away from Trump’s speech with the impression that there is a dangerously high crime rate among the immigrant population. Such is the power of repetition.

That viewer would probably come away with the idea that there is more illegal entry into the United States than ever before. Again, the power of repetition.

If not, then where’s the crisis?

Fact-checkers and White House correspondents countered — before and after the speech — that none of that is true. But the lies are spread; the damage is done.

As the linguist and author George Lakoff puts it, the news media “has become complicit with Trump by allowing itself to be used as an amplifier for his falsehoods and frames.”

That’s exactly what happened Tuesday night.

News junkies, journalists and particularly astute citizens undoubtedly realize that much of what Trump said is exaggerated or simply false. Those who read a quality newspaper Wednesday morning or endured hours of non-Fox cable news on Tuesday do, too.

But most Americans don’t absorb their news that way.

They see a headline on their phone and swipe it away. They look up in annoyance as the president’s words intertwine with “The Conners” or “NCIS,” and they pay attention for a few minutes.

And so false information wins out. And even if Trump doesn’t get his border wall, he gets a win of sorts. He sows lies, or at least confusion.

“Trump needs the media, and the media help him by repeating what he says,” Lakoff told me last year when I wrote about his idea for a better way: the “truth sandwich.”

I wouldn’t suggest, for a moment, that network television and the rest of the mainstream media should ignore what the president says. That would be irresponsible, not to mention impossible.

Especially with 800,000 federal workers bearing the brunt of an unnecessary government shutdown, there is inherent news value in what’s going on. News organizations are rightly focused on that, including on the president’s attempts to justify it.

But broadcasting him live and unfiltered — whether in an Oval Office speech, or an impromptu news conference, or at a campaign rally — has been a bad idea for quite some time.

Instead, whatever news is produced can be presented in context with facts woven in from the start: Truth first.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, by some estimates, Trump received billions of dollars of free advertising by being put on the air live almost every time he was in front of a podium. The media’s inability to wrest their collective gaze from him is one of the major reasons he gained the presidency.

That’s been acknowledged as wrong, including by CNN honcho Jeff Zucker, whose network was one of the worst offenders — and is now one of Trump’s biggest targets of scorn.

Trump insults the media as “the enemy of the people” and “the opposition party.” He heaps abuse on reporters, and constantly undermines the role of the press in our democracy.

But when he came around looking for free airtime — preceded by a friendly, off-the-record lunch with news anchors — the answer (after a bit of hesi­ta­tion that predictably went nowhere) was yes.

Yes, because it’s the president of the United States. Yes, because there might be actual news. Yes, because they’ve (mostly) done it that way in the past.

Yes, because they want to be “fair.”

As it turned out, yes was the wrong answer.

The news media is absolutely terrible at learning from its mistakes. But, scorched on Tuesday night, broadcast television executives really ought to learn from this one.

It’s a simple two-letter word. Let’s say it together: No.

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For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

-8 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-01-09 16:55
How silly. All presidents use prime time speeches from the oval office to propagandize and promote their issues. Maybe Margaret Sullivan and the BrainWashingnto nPost should stop writing about Trump and giving him all that free publicity. The media made Trump with the 24/7 non-stop coverage of Trump and the BrainPost is just as bad as the rest of them.

There's nothing wrong with what Trump did. But the content of his speech and his policy on immigration is just horrible. He is working an issue that all sane Americans should be against. Immigrants are NOT criminals and they commit crimes less often their citizen counterparts.

The system is working. Trump is doing all he can to lobby for his cause -- funding a wall. The other side, democrats, are against the wall and they are winning. Congress holds the power of the budget and they are not going to pay.

Each side has the right to use all the means possible to promote its case. That's what Trump did. He has a bad case and he's losing.

Obama made 28 oval office speeches to promote issues he favored. I doubt the BrainWashington Post objected to those.
+1 # Texas Aggie 2019-01-10 09:23
But you will notice that the media didn't bend over backwards to broadcast his speeches live during prime time.
+25 # wilhelmscream 2019-01-09 18:05
Trump the Dictator walks out of meeting to end shutdown saying “waste of time” while (some) federal workers continue to work w/o pay. Everyone else is out of work with no way to pay rent; buy food for their families; keep the lights on; pay for heat; and many other bills! Landlords won’t care about the shutdown; they want their rent money the day it’s due or, eviction en mass across the country. OVER A WALL WELL OVER 50% OF THE PEOPLE DON’T WANT! YOU’RE HURTING PEOPLE TRUMP!! NOVEMBER 2020 WILL BE THE END!
0 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-01-13 09:11
Wilhelm -- the federal workers should simply walk out too. Why are they working without pay? That is just pure idiocy. If they walked out en masse, the congress and Trump would resolve this in hours. Can you imagine every airport in the US shut down?

Workers have power. They need to assert it. Teachers in Los Angeles may walk out en masse very soon, if the politicians don't get real. Federal workers could do this too.
+3 # lfeuille 2019-01-10 00:04
I want to see how this plays out. If he is just digging a deeper hole for himself, let him continue. I did not watch it. I just can't stand to listen to him whine. But I've read that even Fox News called out some of his lies.
0 # ddd-rrr 2019-01-10 05:50
"YES!", to everything that Margaret Sullivan wrote in this article -- and,
"NO!", to Trump's incessant lying, and to his free TV advertising space!
+3 # Anne Frank 2019-01-10 11:56
The corporate media cannot refuse to broadcast the speeches of presidents if they are to retain any journalistic integrity at all. And if the Washington Post and its ilk were truly reporting news instead of working--with considerable success, alas--to dumb down the public, all could see for themselves how moronic are the orange one's immigration proposals. The solution is not censorship. The solution is publishing the facts.
+2 # Jaax88 2019-01-10 14:50
To treat a known liar, congenital or psychotic, with kid gloves or without warnings seems to me to be failure of the networks. Maybe the networks need to be required to put a warning the screen before a speech by Trump, that some of his statement might not be true or factual and the networks do not endorse or stand behind the speech. Or perhaps preface his speeches with a warning, "PRESIDENT TRUMP HAS LIED PREVIOUSLY ON THIS SUBJECT

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