Donald Trump's interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week (above) is a great distillation of why covering the Republican frontrunner is proving so difficult for mainstream press outlets.
On the one hand, he demands coverage. He's leading the race everywhere: nationally, in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in South Carolina. And with the exception of a brief surge for Ben Carson that's quickly dissipating, Trump has been leading consistently for more than three months. So outlets like ABC and shows like This Week would, naturally, like the longstanding GOP frontrunner to appear on their programs from time to time. It doesn't hurt that Trump is ratings gold compared with the likes of Jeb Bush or past frontrunners such as Mitt Romney, either.
But Trump also has a tendency to use his appearances on TV news to spout flagrant lies about a variety of topics. His statements aren't false the way that, say, Marco Rubio's claim that he can cut taxes by $12 trillion and still balance the budget is false. False claims of that variety are a long and distinguished tradition in American electoral politics, and it's an established policy on programs like This Week to not challenge them too aggressively.
Trump's lies, by contrast are more like something you'd hear a conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones trumpet. Stephanopoulos showed a clip of Trump claiming to have witnessed "thousands and thousands" of Muslims or Arab Americans in Jersey City, New Jersey, cheering in the streets on 9/11 in celebration of the attacks.
This is an odd thing for Trump to say, because it's totally made up. No such celebrations took place in Jersey City on 9/11, so far as fact checkers from PolitiFact to the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler can tell. "You know, the police say that didn't happen, and all those rumors have been on the internet for some time," Stephanopoulos noted. "So did you misspeak yesterday?"
Trump doubled down: "It did happen. I saw it. … It was on television. I saw it. George, it did happen." He continued:
TRUMP: There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down. And that tells you something. It was well covered at the time, George.
Now, I know they don't like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time.
There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As I said, the police have said it didn't happen. But what I want to move on right now.
On the one hand, Stephanopoulos is in an impossible situation here. Trump is repeating known falsehoods, but what's Stephanopoulos going to do? Quote some of the statements from police confirming it didn't happen? Note that the more durable urban legend concerned Paterson, New Jersey, where police responded to the rumors by going to the center of the city's Middle Eastern community and saw only Muslims praying, with none celebrating? Raise the possibility that Trump actually saw footage of celebrations in East Jerusalem, which is, to be clear, not in New Jersey? Trump would only keep replying that he saw the celebrations with his own two eyes. The argument would be over before it began.
But this dynamic is generally why liars and conspiracy theorists aren't allowed on respectable news programs. Producers know that when you put someone who's likely to spew falsehoods and who's impervious to all attempts to correct them on the air, that person is going to get a lot of opportunities to repeat his falsehoods, and it'll be very hard if not impossible to debunk him. Viewers will get a healthy sampling of lies, and undoing that damage in the space allowed will be nigh impossible. As Jay Z once said, "A wise man told me don't argue with fools, 'cause people from a distance can't tell who is who."
That wasn't Trump's only lie on This Week, though. There was this exchange on Syrian refugees, in which Trump insists that President Obama is planning on letting in 200,000, not the 10,000 he's promised:
TRUMP: And the number he wants is much higher than 10,000. I've heard it's 200,000. That's the real number.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You know that's...
TRUMP: That's the real number he wants. I've even heard 250,000 people. We have a president that doesn't know what he's doing. We have a president, George, who is totally incompetent.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That — that number is all refugees, not from Syria.
It's even worse than Stephanopoulos indicates. The closest number to that comes from comments by Secretary of State John Kerry, who suggested that the US was ready to accept 85,000 refugees total in fiscal year 2016 and 100,000 in 2017. That's 185,000 — or close to 200,000 — but over two years, and, as Stephanopoulos says, that's all refugees, not just Syrians, who'd be a small fraction of that total. What's more, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has distanced the administration from the 100,000 number, saying it's unlikely without congressional approval of more funds.
That wasn't even Trump's only lie about refugees. He repeated the myth that most Syrian refugees are young men, when most are in fact women and children:
TRUMP: When I look at those migration — when I look at the migration and the lines and I see all strong, very powerful-looking men, they’re men, and I see very few women, I see very few children, there’s something strange going on.
Stephanopoulos tried, unsuccessfully, to interrupt Trump, finally adding once the candidate was finished:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Just for the record, though, the statistics do show the majority of the refugees coming in are women and children.
And then he moved along. Trump also offered a doozy on gun rights. Stephanopoulos noted that people on terrorism watch lists are currently allowed to buy guns, and asked Trump if he'd like to change that policy. Trump, not wanting to get caught calling for increased restrictions on gun ownership, decided to insist that the law currently bans people on watch lists from buying guns and deflected all of Stephanopoulos's attempts to debunk him:
TRUMP: — no, no. You — if people are on a watch list or people are sick, you have already — this is already covered in the legislation that we already have, George. It's already fully covered.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, but under current law…
TRUMP: But we have…
STEPHANOPOULOS: …people on the watch list…
TRUMP: …if we have an enemy of state…
STEPHANOPOULOS: …are allowed to buy guns.
TRUMP: Listen, George, if we have an enemy of state, I don't want to give him anything. I want to have him in jail, that's what I want. I want to have him in jail.
But if those people in Paris had guns in that room, it would have been a shootout and very few people would have been hurt by comparison to the number that were hurt.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But yesterday...
TRUMP: I'll tell you who would have been hurt, the bad guys would...
STEPHANOPOULOS: But yes or no?
TRUMP: …because they were the only ones that had the guns.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Trump, yes or no, should someone on the terror watch list be allowed to buy a gun?
TRUMP: If somebody is on a watch list and an enemy of state and we know it's an enemy of state, I would keep them away, absolutely.
A careful viewer, paying close attention to all of Stephanopoulos's rebuttals, would come away thinking (correctly) that Trump spent the entire interview reiterating falsehoods. But a casual viewer could very well come away thinking that a) thousands of Arabs celebrated 9/11 in the streets of New Jersey, b) the Obama administration is planning on bringing in up to 250,000 Syrian refugees, most of them young men primed to be radicalized by ISIS or other terror groups, and c) it's currently illegal for people on terrorism watch lists to get guns. None of those things are true.
Generally speaking, TV news shouldn't be in the business of making its viewers believe stuff that isn't true. And in any other context, that'd be enough to keep the likes of Trump off the air. But TV news is also in the business of covering leading politicians, particularly ones the polls indicate are likely to get a major party's nomination for the presidency. So not covering Trump feels actively irresponsible. The result is the jumble ABC News presented Sunday, wherein a frustrated interviewer is forced to entertain the candidate's lies and try to rebut them in real time, knowing that defusing each and every falsehood is impossible. It's a mess of a television program. But what else is ABC to do?
Update: An interesting idea from CNN on how to resolve this dilemma: