There are children in cages: It's time to stop enabling the Trump administration's vicious lies

If this crisis doesn't force mainstream journalists to drop the pseudo-objectivity, they're complicit too

Published June 19, 2018 1:20PM (EDT)

Kirstjen Nielsen; Immigrant children outside a former Job Corps site that now houses them. (AP/Susan Walsh/Wilfredo Lee)
Kirstjen Nielsen; Immigrant children outside a former Job Corps site that now houses them. (AP/Susan Walsh/Wilfredo Lee)

As public outcry mounted, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen appeared before the White House press corps Monday afternoon to defend the Trump administration’s continued policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border. The contentious briefing saw several reporters pressing Nielsen as to why the administration didn’t change course. Near its conclusion, one journalist even played audio of detained children crying and sobbing that had been posted online. By most accounts, Nielsen’s performance was disastrous from a public relations standpoint, but many viewers remained frustrated that such a barbarous act would ever be allowed to take place, much less continue without much in the way of explanation.

Nielsen’s defense, as problematic as it was, reiterated the administration’s line that it is simply carrying out the law as written, a fictional excuse President Donald Trump has relied on repeatedly in the last few days, while calling on Congress to amend its laws and scapegoating Democrats as effectively forcing his hand. This is an out-and-out lie, a misrepresentation of how the administration’s stance on immigration has hardened in past months, effectively abandoning previous attempts to enforce the law while maintaining a semblance of humanity. It is a misrepresentation meant to muddy the waters, reduce political consequence, and force Democrats to gives Trump his wall on the southern border.

Similarly, Nielsen also maintained in the briefing that the administration did not see separation of children from their families as a method of deterrence, which totally contradicted Stephen Miller, an adviser to the president, and John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, who told National Public Radio that separation could be a “tough deterrent” to illegal immigration. As there were a multitude of lies to inquire after, these particular untruths were never corrected in the briefing.

Keeping up with the administration’s lies over the past year and a half has proven nearly impossible Examinations have shown that Trump himself has misled the American people more than 3,000 times as of the end of May. The sheer volume of lies has overwhelmed our journalistic system, meaning that many such falsehoods simply slip through the cracks and find purchase with the American public.

But that struggle to combat fabrications is only one of the many battles in which the Fourth Estate has fallen short. In the lead up to Trump’s victory in November 2016, as well as the debacle that has followed since his inauguration, journalists and pundits alike have failed to frame this travesty in its true light, thus allowing a crisis that threatens our very democracy and standing in the world. There remain good reasons to doubt that anything’s going to improve.

*  *  *

Certainly lying isn’t anything new to Donald Trump. Before he ever announced his candidacy for the presidency he was telling lies about his business, his wealth and his relationships. Trump’s propensity to mislead has presented a unique challenge to journalists, both in number and the scope of subjects he’s willing to lie about. On Monday he can lie about just how much money his father loaned him to start his business and by Tuesday he’s onto claiming he witnessed Muslims celebrating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But if the whirlwind nature of Trump's lies is overwhelming, it is in large part the responsibility of the press to frame those lies to the American people. In many cases publications have deliberated exactly what to call these lies, oftentimes settling for euphemisms like “unconfirmed accusations” and “demonstrable falsehoods.” CNN has even changed its chyrons to address the problem, choosing to point out Trump’s “false claims” and occasionally pointing out his contradictions.

Much of the problem begins with the modern transference of knowledge. Studies have shown that as many as 59 percent of social media users neglect to read news articles and only rely on their headlines, a chilling finding as many of Trump’s lies require context and close scrutiny to decipher. Because mainstream news organizations traditionally avoid editorializing, many of these lies go uncorrected, as was the case in this Sunday headline from the New York Times: “Trump Resisting a Growing Wrath for Separating Migrant Families.” Here the crux of the article, mainly Trump’s repeated lies about his own responsibility for the immigrant children crisis, is left unexplored.

Here, the strict barrier between news coverage and editorials or opinion articles actually prevents delivering accurate information to the public, because any attempt to frame Trump’s lies as such can be perceived as subjective reporting, a charge that terrifies many journalists, considering the president’s relentless attacks on the press. When he calls major newspapers and TV networks “the enemy of the people” and claims they’re “fake news,” the accusations effectively prevent journalists from taking stronger stances.

Recently, cognitive scientist George Lakoff has proposed an antidote of sorts that he calls a “truth sandwich.” With this technique the reporting of Trump’s lies would be theoretically counteracted by the order of information delivery. In this case journalists would first state the true nature of an issue, then include Trump’s false statements on the subject, and then round out the reporting by fact-checking the lie in service of reporting the original truth.

There’s no telling whether Lakoff’s method would be successful, or if any  linguistic or rhetorical strategies journalists could employ would make a difference, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. The current approach is failing miserably, and Trump continues to avoid any political consequences -- because he refuses to play by the rules politicians have felt bound by for generations and because the journalists charged with holding politicians responsible are apprehensive about violating the public trust.

*  *  *

Simply put, the pictures and audio coming out of the detention centers are chilling. Children are being caged. Experts agree the treatment is abusive and could be causing permanent damage. It’s an embarrassment, a moment of immense national shame. Every day the problem isn’t addressed is another day the reputation of the United States of America is tarnished.

What we’re watching now is nothing short of a perversion of the American way of life. It is cruel and unthinkable that we could be doing such a thing. Arguably, it’s one of the most reprehensible actions since the U.S. rounded up Japanese-Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor. It’s worth noting that coverage of that historical crime was also underplayed in a similar manner at the time; the American press has a long history of reporting troubling stories without much in the way of critical examination.

The impetus for that is a respect for the government that more often than not gives public figures, especially the president, the benefit of the doubt. In several instances, including the Iraq war and congressional passage of the Patriot Act, media institutions have failed to hold politicians properly accountable or to depicting actions that threaten American ideals in an appropriate context. Donald Trump has profited from this benefit of the doubt, perhaps more than any other commander in chief.

Time and again, Trump has told the American people who he is.

As a candidate he revealed himself as a racist in his speeches about Mexican immigrants and African-,Americans, a revelation he only furthered as president when he appeared to defend neo-Nazis and white supremacists following the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead and nearly 40 people injured.

On the world stage, Trump has gone out of his way to praise murderous despots who brutalize their own citizens, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. When confronted about those leaders' human rights records, Trump has equivocated. Asked about Putin’s alleged murders of dissidents and journalists, he said, “We’ve got a lot of killers.” Asked about the police state run by Kim, Trump called him a “tough guy” and claimed the tyrant “loves his people.”

Trump also claimed that Kim’s people love him back, saying, “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” Trump later claimed he was joking, but he has openly lusted after dictatorial power by wishing for control over the Department of Justice, or voicing a desire to deport NFL players who protest the national anthem. He even joked that he wished American media praised his every move the way North Korea’s state-run media fawns over their despot.

That these traits have culminated in the horrifying scenes on our border shouldn’t be a surprise either. Trump has regularly dehumanized immigrants and has publicly voiced his approval of torture and war crimes. Separating children from their families, regardless of how the optics play or what polls tell him, isn’t very far on the spectrum of what Trump thinks constitutes cruelty.

We should take him at his word and stop dancing around the implications. Journalists who worry over appearing objective or showing deference to the office of the presidency are doing a disservice to the country, to the office itself, and to the children locked in those cages. This is a crisis of massive proportions, and taking a "wait and see what happens" approach is unacceptable.

Donald Trump has told us who he is and what he’s capable of. He’s revealed his character, or rather his lack of character, by his actions. He’s an authoritarian in search of authoritarian powers. All the telltale signs are there and he’s admitted as much himself. There’s a reason he’s most comfortable in the presence of other authoritarians and regularly at odds with our Western allies. His worldview and philosophy are incompatible with free societies, and no amount of hand-wringing will change that.

Objectivity, or at least the old definition of objectivity, is incompatible with this moment. There is right and there is wrong. Allowing a strongman to continually bend and destroy the truth in search of power and in the pursuit of mortally wounding democracy is objectively wrong. Harming children is objectively wrong. It’s the type of abuse the Fourth Estate was established to root out. It's why the First Amendment was added to the Constitution.

We are in the middle of a crisis, and it is past time we call this struggle what it is. Fretting over headlines and worrying over whether to call a lie a lie play into the hands of an administration that is unconcerned with nuance and uninterested in discourse. These people should not be afforded the benefit of the doubt any longer. It’s past time we stopped pulling punches and acknowledge the moment.

So let’s try Lakoff’s solution.

There are children in cages who are being used as political pawns.

Donald Trump and his rogue’s stable of heartless cronies are lying about their role in these children's imprisonment. They insist they are powerless while holding the keys.

This catastrophe gets worse by the day. Every moment we don’t hold the administration accountable is another moment we all serve as those children's jailers.

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By Jared Yates Sexton

Jared Yates Sexton is the author of "American Rule: How A Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People," to be published in September by Dutton Books. Currently is an associate professor of writing at Georgia Southern University.

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