By CHERIAN GEORGE
Donald Trump’s treacherous relationship with truth presents a challenge for journalism. When a newsmaker spouts dangerous lies, it’s not enough for the “objective” journalist to report factually what the man says. At some point, one needs to abandon faithful but lazy stenography and take on the responsibility of giving people the best available information.
That duty is especially crucial when a politician’s misinformation targets minorities, mobilising supporters through hate speech.
Trump was at it again on a Fox News Sunday programme on March 13. Host Chris Wallace, questioning Trump’s earlier claim that “Islam hates us”, noted that according to the best experts the number of jihadists was only around a hundred thousand—a tiny fraction of all Muslims.
Trump, of course, did not back down. Like his fantasy Mexican border wall whenever inconvenient facts approach, his anti-Muslim tale just got taller.
“It’s 27 percent, could be 35 percent, would go to war, would—the hatred is tremendous, Chris,” Trump replied. “Why don’t you take a look at the Pew poll that came out very recently or fairly recently, where I think the number—I mean, I could be corrected, it’s whatever it is—but it’s something like 27 percent are, you know, really very militant.”
The claim that a quarter to a third of the world’s two billion Muslims are dangerous is ludicrous. But since they make up only 1 percent of the US population, many Americans do not know a single one personally. To them, Muslims are what the opinion makers and the media say they are.
The good news is that mainstream American media recognized Trump’s rhetoric for the rubbish it was and treated it accordingly.
The Associated Press—the wire agency on which most media outlets in the US rely for their content and news agenda—did not bother to cover it.
A handful of other American outlets reported it, but only to illustrate Trump’s dishonesty.
The DailyKos blog headlined its report, “Donald Trump claims ‘27 percent’ of Muslims are militant, is still wrong”.
It was not difficult for journalists to check Trump’s claim, since he had mentioned his source—the highly reputable Pew Research. DailyKos established that no such survey existed.
On March 16, FactCheck.org—the nonprofit project launched in 2003—came out with the definitive demolition of Trump’s figures, under the headline “Trump’s false Muslim claim”.
The CNN website followed up with a blog describing Trump’s numbers as a “jaw-dropping whopper” to “scare people about Muslims”.
“Here’s the reality: Trump is lying.”
It’s not the first time Trump has used suspicious data to vilify Muslims. In December, when he proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, he cited other outlandish numbers.
Then, as well, serious American media were up to the challenge. The very same evening, the Washington Post debunked Trump’s evidence. The paper pointed out that the organization behind Trump’s figures, the Center for Security Policy, is one of the main misinformation factories within the country’s well-documented Islamophobia industry.
The influential Politifact website came to the same conclusion. “Trump cites shaky survey in call to ban Muslims from entering US,” said its headline.
And now the bad news
Unfortunately, not all news organizations have internalized the need to do due diligence when reporting the pronouncements of a known bigot.
Fox News, which had given him the original platform to deliver his 27 percent comment, ran the transcript of the interview with no correction.
The most disappointing examples, though, come from the Indian media’s coverage of Trump’s statements.
India’s national news agency, the Press Trust of India, filed a story regurgitating Trump’s quotes uncritically.
The report acknowledged that these were “controversial statements adding to his anti-Muslim rhetoric”, but left readers clueless as to whether Pew had indeed published such a survey.
The PTI report was carried on the websites of major news outlets—Times of India, NDTV, and First Post. None of them bothered to check the facts.
India Today—India’s equivalent of Time magazine—first ran an unedited feed of the PTI story under the headline “27% of Muslims very militant: Trump”.
But even a few days later, when it ran its own staffer-written article, India Today made no attempt to verify his figures. India Today used its editorial judgment only to flag Trump’s claims as disputed. It said he “drew flak” for his remarks and that he was known for “stoking series of controversies”.
This is the classic failure of “objectivity” in lieu of truth-telling. When one side in a dispute is absolutely wrong and the other is absolutely right, playing it straight shouldn’t mean going down the middle. The lies need to be called out for they are.
The irony here is that, on paper, India is far more sensitive to the harms of inflammatory rhetoric. Unlike the US, where most hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, Indian law punishes expression that offends religious feelings and risks sowing communal discord.
Laws aside, though, there’s no substitute for a vigilant, skeptical press. When a politician trumpets blatant untruths that defame an entire community, the news media should do more than hand him a megaphone.