How Trump played the Times like a fiddle
"When you look under the hood, you realize it's total bullshit," Lawrence Glickman told us.
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Is the elite press prepared to call Donald Trump out for his nonstop lies and deceptions as he makes another run for the White House so he can finish off American democracy? A recent episode wasn’t encouraging.
During a speech Monday in New Hampshire, Trump claimed he “went up to Michigan to save the United Auto Workers.” This was a lie. In reality, Trump traveled to Michigan on September 27 to deliver a speech at a nonunion shop at the invitation of management. But it’s a lie some of the biggest publications in the country helped him launder.
Trump’s trip had nothing to do with unions. Unlike the staunchly pro-union President Biden, who traveled to Michigan on September 26 to picket with and address actual striking UAW workers, Trump embraced GOP anti-union policies as president and worked against the interests of organized labor. But when his campaign told journalists he was counter-programming the second Republican debate with a speech that was supposed to represent a serious pitch to striking workers, they just ran with it.
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“Trump is skipping the debate to travel to Michigan for an event with union workers,” one credulous New York Times story claimed. A headline in the Washington Post said “Trump demands union support.” A photo posted by a New York Times photographer described Trump as greeting “current and former union members.”
In fact, it’s unclear whether Trump met with a single unionized autoworker during his trip. What we do know, however, is that his campaign isn’t above sleight of hand make it seem like he did. In his report about the event, Craig Mauger of the Detroit News quickly dispelled the narrative pushed most egregiously by the Times:
One individual in the crowd who held a sign that said “union members for Trump” acknowledged that she wasn’t a union member when approached by a Detroit News reporter after the event. Another person with a sign that read “auto workers for Trump” said he wasn’t an auto worker when asked for an interview. Both people didn’t provide their names.
Lawrence Glickman, a historian at Cornell University and author of “Free Enterprise: An American History,” called out these “failures of framing” from the Times and Post in a social media thread contrasting the reality of Trump’s trip with the way it was covered.
As Glickman’s thread got attention, the Times quietly walked its coverage back.
Better late than never, as they say, but the Times shouldn’t have gotten played in the first place. While Trump no doubt has support from some union members, he doesn’t support unions, and in that respect the difference between him and the current president couldn’t be clearer. Not only is there no evidence that Trump met with union workers, but the idea he’s making a serious play for them on the merits of his labor policy is absurd.
I’ve long enjoyed Glickman’s insights on social media, and figured this made for a good occasion to connect with and chat about media coverage of Trump, the ways in which it hasn’t improved since 2016, and the actual records of Trump and Biden on labor. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, follows.
What’s your macro assessment of how the press has done covering Trump? I thought mainstream outlets got much better about calling out his lies about things like mail voting and covid during the 2020 cycle, but coverage of his Michigan speech indicates they’re still not above getting worked.
There have been some improvements, but it's very worrying that there hasn't been more, and I wonder how many lessons have been learned from the appalling coverage in 2016. In the case of Trump and Biden’s recent visits to Michigan, I think the reporting has been misleading, if not false. But the general problem isn't that — it’s taking things that are true, but not putting them in any sort of helpful context for readers.
For example, I keep reading stories about impeachment or about Hunter Biden and how these are terrible blows to Joe Biden, without putting them in any kind of context, which is that this whole impeachment hearing, as many Republicans have admitted, is a total sham. I feel like a lot more could be done to contextualize and show how this is very, very different than any impeachment inquiry, with perhaps some parallels to the Bill Clinton situation. But that sort of coverage doesn’t happen enough. So sometimes the quest for objective truth can wind up with unbalanced reporting that doesn't really contextualize that something may be true, at some literal level, but also deeply misleading more broadly.
There was a New York Times story a few weeks ago about “Biden's tough week,” which focused on the impeachment hearings and Hunter Biden being charged with gun possession. And I thought, why is this Joe Biden's bad week? His son was charged with something that had nothing to do with his presidency, and the GOP is flailing and making this case with no evidence about why he should be impeached.
What do you make of the fact that the Times was still laundering this idea of Trump meeting with striking workers days after it was clear that wasn’t actually what happened?
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