“Each time President Trump says something that we know, based on the evidence, is not accurate, we hear from readers who are upset that we did not call the president a liar,” The New York Times wrote in 2018.
In the four years of his presidency, Trump made 30,573 “false or misleading claims,” as catalogued by The Washington Post, which noted that “the tsunami of untruths kept rising the longer he served as president and became increasingly unmoored from the truth.” (The Post still didn’t use the word “lie.”) And by the end of that four years — which culminated in Trump claiming that the election he lost had been stolen from him, an insurrection by pro-Trump rioters at the U.S. Capitol, and 53% of Republicans saying they believe Trump is the “true president” — most news organizations were being a bit blunter. (New York Times, Feb. 9, 2021: “Lie after lie: Listen to how Trump built his alternate reality.” CNN, July 12, 2021: “Untethered to reality, Trump lies over and over about the 2020 election at CPAC.”)
Now, news outlets face a more complicated question. Should they print politicians’ lies/false statements/untruths/misleading claims at all — especially when those politicians are saying these things with the expectation that their statements will be covered and amplified by the media?
Many mainstream outlets have simply regurgitated false statements, tweeting them out with no context or turning them into headlines. (Hi CNN, AP, AP, Financial Times, New York Post, Reuters, and so on.)
Cleveland’s Plain Dealer decided to do something different. Back in March, the publication’s staffers grappled with questions over “our responsibility in how we cover the candidacy of Republican Josh Mandel for the U.S. Senate in 2022,” Chris Quinn, the VP of content at Advance Ohio and editor of Cleveland.com, wrote at the time:
"The issue is that Mandel has a history of not telling the truth when he campaigns — he was our PolitiFact Ohio “Pants on Fire” champion during his first run for Senate because of the whoppers he told. More recently, he is given to irresponsible and potentially dangerous statements on social media. He’s proven himself to be a candidate who will say just about anything if it means getting his name in the news. We have not dealt with a candidate like this on the state level previously. […]
"We ultimately decided not to write about Mandel’s call for DeWine to lift his coronavirus restrictions. Mandel is pretty much a nobody right now, a nobody begging for people to notice his tweets a year ahead of the Senate primary. Just because he makes outrageous, dangerous statements doesn’t mean it is news.
"He remains desperate for attention. Last week, he challenged our columnist Leila Atassi to a point-by-point debate — to be published on our platforms — about coronavirus restrictions. Leila was eager to give it a go, knowing that she could use facts and science to obliterate Mandel in that debate.
"I told her to decline. We are proud of our role as a center of discourse, with a diversity of viewpoints you can find nowhere else in the state. But we do not knowingly publish ridiculous and idiotic claims. Mandel did not want to have a debate with our columnist as much as he wanted to use our platform to get attention with demonstrably false claims about the virus."
Quinn has previously overseen other innovations at the paper. They don’t necessarily come in the form of new types of technology — rather, he’s overseeing changes to the conventional wisdom of what gets covered and what doesn’t. Back in 2018, I spoke with himabout his newsroom’s decision to stop automatically running mugshots (“the worst photos people will ever take”) alongside stories about minor crimes, to no longer name the perpetrators of minor crimes, and to review people’s requests to remove their names from old stories.
“We’re not 100 percent. We don’t cover everything that moves; we pick and choose,” Quinn told me at the time. And that movement has gathered speed.
Back to 2021: On Saturday, Quinn provided an update. The paper’s policy to “not take the bait and give these false statements the oxygen they need to flourish” is going well:
"Readers responded quite favorably to what we are doing, and rest assured that people are not complaining that they miss Mandel’s hate-filled invective.
"But the policy applies well beyond Mandel. We had a couple of recent examples, one involving a Republican and one a Democrat.
"Trump held a rally in Wellington a few weeks ago, and before he arrived, our political writers and editors met to talk about how we would cover him. For months Trump has been spreading a false and dangerous narrative about how the election was stolen from him.
"It’s a claim so ridiculous that one wonders why he keeps making it, but then we see a portion of the population that buys that claim, eschewing their powers of independent thought and judgment to blindly follow the former president. That’s why Trump’s claim is dangerous. It baselessly undermines confidence in America’s time-tested election system with Trump’s followers.
"So, we were not going to quote Trump making his absurd claims about the election. We weren’t going to quote any of his many false statements. We were not going to give them oxygen.
"What we did do was cover how his visit affected the Republican Senate candidates who are so desperate to receive the former president’s benediction. Seth Richardson wrote the piece, which put the race to replace Senator Rob Portman into a fresh perspective. The candidates seem more interested in what Trump thinks of them than they are in what Ohioans think, so the Trump visit could have had an impact. As it ended up, he barely mentioned them. […]
"The other example comes courtesy of Dennis Kucinich, a candidate for Cleveland mayor. He’s in a crowded race, making it a challenge to stand out, and candidates sometimes resort to stunts to get their names mentioned. That’s what Kucinich did.
"He put together a mailing with an image of the Cleveland script sign, riddled with bullets and dripping blood, in a bid to use Cleveland’s violence epidemic to his advantage. (Destination Cleveland, which has a trademark on the Cleveland Script sign, immediately ordered Kucinich to cease using it.)
"There was no news in what Kucinich did. It was 100 percent a stunt. We’ve reported plenty on the violence in Cleveland. A stunt by Kucinich to highlight adds nothing to the conversation. We did not cover his stunt, although at least one television station did."