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How Trump hoodwinks the media into grading him on a curve

GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Speaks At National Guard Annual Convention In Baltimore
Donald Trump understands the power of narrative.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Here’s what happened at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, on Friday morning: Donald Trump read a 30-second comment on birtherism, in which he took no responsibility for the rise of the movement, falsely pinned it instead on his opponent, and then painted himself as a brave public servant.

Trump didn’t mention that since 2011 he has pushed the laughably, self-evidently false conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s place of birth, helping to elevate the fringe tale into the mainstream. That he built his presidential campaign on this notoriety. Or that even as the Republican nominee, he has refused to acknowledge his role in spreading "birther" theories, admit that he was categorically, humiliatingly wrong, or apologize to Obama or to the people he misled.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from reading reports of Trump’s speech from two of the most prominent and respected media organizations in the US, or from the chyrons cable news appended to Trump’s speech on Friday morning.

Here is the tweet the Associated Press wrote about the event:

Onscreen, MSNBC described it this way: "Trump finally admits Obama born in the USA."

And this is how the New York Times began its first version of a story on the event: "Donald Trump publicly retreated from his ‘birther’ campaign on Friday, acknowledging that President Obama was born in the United States and saying that he wanted to move on from the conspiracy theory that he has been clinging to for years."

If you actually watch the statement — it’s only 36 seconds long — Trump didn’t admit anything or acknowledge that he had been "clinging to" birtherism for years. He tried to claim that his role in the conspiracy theory was simply setting the record straight, and that the original sin was Hillary Clinton’s.

Watch: Trump on his role in the birther movement

This is what people mean when they complain about how "the media" has covered the Trump campaign: By trying to avoid bias, some reporters and editors end up spreading the narrative that Trump wants voters to hear.

Trump gets the media to buy into his narratives

This is how Trump plays the narrative game. He or his campaign, or both, first sets the expectation: "Trump will moderate on race and immigration to appeal to suburban voters," say, or, "Trump will make a major statement about President Obama’s birthplace."

This becomes the lens through which journalists interpret whatever Trump does next. If the narrative is that he is going to pivot, the coverage is about whether he successfully pivoted — even if he did no such thing. If the narrative is that he’s going to disavow birtherism, the coverage says he disavowed birtherism — even if he actually didn’t.

The New York Times fell into Trump’s trap on this when the candidate spoke on immigration in August. Trump’s campaign had been floating the possibility that he might moderate his rhetoric on immigration, and his speech in Mexico was, by his standards, low-key. Then he gave a dark speech in Phoenix, railing against unauthorized immigrants and playing on his supporters’ fears. But the Times’s first story read as if Trump had acted the same way in Mexico and Phoenix, reporting a "stark turnaround" on immigration that didn’t actually happen.

Editors there blamed tight deadlines and quickly unfolding events. But they also expected Trump to act like a normal candidate with a consistent message.

At times like this, every scrap of evidence that fits the narrative Trump put forward in the first place is accepted, and the events that don’t are discarded. It’s like going to a psychic and being told something bad will happen to you on Friday, and then, on Friday, winning the lottery and getting a paper cut but seizing on the paper cut to prove that the psychic was right.

Trump isn’t just playing to media fears about being seen as biased if they call out a candidate’s lies. He’s exploiting another weakness of political journalism: the expectation that politicians be predictable.

Narratives about "expectations" are more resilient than the truth

Obama Delivers Speech On Race And Politics
In 2008, Obama said he’d deliver a big speech on race in America and Jeremiah Wright, and he did, because that’s how campaigns normally work.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The rules of politics hold that a politician with a big liability in his past has to somehow publicly account for that error and prove he’s changed his ways. The media report that he is going to do it, they report when he does it, and then they report on whether what he did was effective.

A good example of this is Barack Obama’s big race speech in 2008. Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had created a firestorm. Obama’s team announced he would give a speech addressing the remarks and sharing his views on race. Obama went on to give a major address in which he talked extensively about Wright and his comments. The subsequent coverage analyzed whether Obama had effectively defused the controversy.

Trump has figured out that the third part of that sequence — the part where he actually gives the speech — doesn’t really matter. The narrative survives without it.

Today, he promised a "major statement." He delivered a 25-minute infomercial with a 30-second sound bite at the end of it. He didn’t apologize or explain; instead, he tried to claim the whole thing was Hillary Clinton’s fault.

And he got away with it. What Trump actually did mattered a lot less than what journalists expected him to do.

Not everyone blindly followed the narrative. The Washington Post wrote that Trump ended "his long history of stoking unfounded doubts about the nation’s first African-American president but also [sought] to falsely blame Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for starting the rumors" (emphasis added). "Falsely blame" was in the headline. So did NPR: "Without apology," its headline read, "Trump now says ‘Obama was born’ in US."

That is an accurate recounting of what happened, without bias — and without even using the charged term "lie." It’s possible!

But too many major media outlets continue to act as if Trump is a normal candidate who will at least try to fulfill the expectations he set for himself. Trump promises to "pivot," and reporters seize on the evidence that he’s actually done that. Trump promises to give a major speech, and so cable news channels air 25 minutes of veterans singing his praises in the assumption that the speech is going to begin any minute.

Expecting Trump will follow through on the expectations his team is setting, the way a normal politician would, is like Charlie Brown running up to kick the football, confident that this time it won’t really be yanked away. He’s changed the game. And some major media outlets haven’t caught up.