Donald Trump has a dilemma. Along with the rest of the Republican Party, he abhors the idea of enacting the kind of federal relief program that would actually help people and keep the nation's economy from collapsing completely in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But that kind of substantive relief means giving ordinary working people money, which goes against the core organizing principle of the GOP, which is that government exists to line the pockets of the rich at the expense of everyone else.
However, Republicans and Trump realize that their economic attitudes are wildly unpopular with most Americans, who do not see the pandemic as an exciting opportunity to experiment with how many millions of people can be evicted or foreclosed out of their homes without the stock market taking a hit. With an election looming, doing nothing while the country falls apart is seen as a bad look for the party that currently controls the Senate and the White House.
So Trump and his Republican allies appear to have settled on a scheme: Try to trick the public into thinking they're taking bold action, while effectively doing nothing at all.
Unfortunately, this a strategy that all too often gets an assist from the mainstream media, which, despite recent improvements in coverage, still keeps getting caught in deeply ingrained bad habits, such as an insistence on false equivalence and a tendency to parrot false White House talking points in headlines. The result is a sea of misleading stories or news segments that portray Republicans as well-meaning, when the real story is about a degree of malice toward the public that's so breathtaking it beggars belief.
Over the weekend, Trump used a strategy so ham-fisted that every reporter, editor or producer who fell for it should consider the medieval tradition of self-flagellation in repentance. With great fanfare, Trump announced on Saturday that he was signing "executive orders" that would allegedly get aid flowing to stricken Americans despite Congress' failure to pass another coronavirus relief package, a failure Trump blamed on Democrats — even though the House passed a bill in May and it's Senate Republicans who have stalled the talks and refused to negotiate further.
As Heather Digby Parton detailed on Monday morning, these "executive orders" are a joke — in fact, only one of the four documents Trump signed on Saturday even qualifies for that label — and are likely to get little, if any, aid flowing to people who need it. This was entirely predictable, as Trump, a longtime grifter who faked being a successful businessman on TV — has a storied habit of making big promises that he reneges on immediately.
But his fake-out worked pretty much as intended, and media sources dutifully ran headlines making it sound like Trump was pushing aid out to people, which he was not doing and never likely intended to do.
The Associated Press and Reuters — whose reporting is syndicated in local newspapers throughout the country — both went with headlines saying things like, "Trump signs coronavirus relief orders" and "Trump extends unemployment benefits, defers payroll tax," without noting that three out of the four so-called orders are merely "memorandums" that will likely end up being toothless because of Trump's legal overreach.
"Trump announces executive actions to provide economic relief after stimulus talks broke down," read a Politico headline.
"Sidestepping Congress, Trump Signs Executive Measures for Pandemic Relief," claimed the New York Times.
"Trump signs 4 executive actions on coronavirus relief," ABC News announced.
These kinds of headlines are misleading in two ways. First, they make the executive actions sound far more substantive than they actually are, making readers believe that help is coming when it's either not coming at all or will be too insubstantial to make a real difference. As Scott Lemieux of Lawyers, Guns, and Money notes, these executive actions are "vaporware" and should have never been taken seriously by the press.
Even more important, is these headlines serve to obscure the most basic takeaway, which is that Trump's actions are about denying people help, not extending it. Trump's dog-and-pony show is an effort to distract attention from the fact that House Democrats have already passed a bill and Republicans are blocking it from becoming law. If the president seriously wanted to get relief to people, he could pressure the Republican-controlled Senate into voting on the bill Democrats have already passed, with a promise to sign it. Waving pieces of paper around in front of the cameras shouldn't distract from that fact, and yet here we are.
Trump's little circus trick only worked over the weekend because it built on another massive and widespread media failure, which is to falsely frame this impasse as a "both sides" story, instead of accurately reporting on the Republican responsibility for the failure to pass a coronavirus relief bill.
As Cydney Hargas at Media Matters reported on Sunday afternoon, the Sunday morning news shows were a minefield of false equivalence, with reporters haranguing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for not wanting to "compromise" with Republicans and blaming "both sides" for failure to pass a bill.
This followed a week of headlines that fell into the same trap of accusing "Congress" of failing to pass a bill, and using the passive voice, with phrasings like "talks fail," all of which makes it seem like some reasonable process was in play and both parties are equally to blame.
In reality, this is a one-sided problem. The issue isn't "both sides" or "Congress." It's the Republicans. Democrats passed a relief bill in May, and have already offered to compromise on the size of the package, so long as what passes constitutes actual relief, and is not just some lip-service maneuver that's meant to look like relief but does nothing substantial. The issue isn't that Democrats won't compromise. It's that Republicans don't want to pass another relief bill.
But the mainstream media continues to live in terror of being accused of "liberal bias," and so resorts to this passive-voice, both-sides-to-blame coverage that only serves to confuse the audience.
This kind of coverage frames the issue in a way that serves Republicans' political interests — while actively harming the interests of ordinary Americans, whoever they vote for. The media gets obsessed with the prospect of passing a bill, any bill, and neglects the question of whether the bill actually does something to relieve the economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic. There is no use in Democrats signing onto a bill that won't work, just so they can say they passed something. Americans need relief, not some useless piece of paper the media and Republicans can trumpet as a "bipartisan compromise solution."
The good news is that these Republican antics are likely to fail, as Parton argued on Monday morning. No matter how many Potemkin executive memos Trump signs or how many gruff quotes Republican congressmen deliver to reporters, the baseline reality is that the public will to notice that they've been abandoned by the federal government — and that blame is likely to fall on the shoulders of Republicans, who still hold most of the power in Washington. Media trickery can only go so far. People pretty quickly grasp what's going on when the checks stop coming.
Still, by falling for Republican tricks and running misleading headlines, the mainstream media is muddying the waters and sowing even more distrust and confusion. Considering how close this election is likely to be and how much depends on it, we cannot afford to let even a handful of voters get confused about what's actually going on in D.C. Now more than ever, it's important for the media to let go of the fetish for "balance" and focus on reporting the truth.