The jury is still out on whether there’s a grand strategy behind the falsehoods spread by Donald Trump, but on Monday the White House did manage to take one of the president’s baseless accusations and use it to their advantage.
President Trump’s main justification for his executive order barring refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries is the need to take swift and extreme action to protect the United States from terrorism. On Monday, after several courts blocked the order and journalists pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to focus on those groups, Trump tried to preemptively shift the blame for any future terror attack from his policies to the courts and the media.
Then, while speaking to U.S. Central Command, the president suggested that the media is covering up terrorist attacks for some unspecified reason (not unlike President Obama).
“You’ve seen what happened in Paris, and Nice. All over Europe, it’s happening,” Trump said. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”
The remark was reminiscent of Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s widely mocked complaint that the media didn’t cover the “Bowling Green massacre” — which is true, as there’s no such thing. Conway claimed she meant to say “Bowling Green terrorists,” referring to two Iraqi men caught trying to aid terror groups back home while they were living in Kentucky. However, Cosmopolitan revealed on Monday that she’d used the term “Bowling Green massacre” before.
While the Conway controversy might have been fresh in his mind, Trump’s accusation has deeper roots. For months, the conspiracy-theory website InfoWars has been reporting that the mainstream press is downplaying reports of terror attacks. (A sample headline from July: “SCANDAL: MASS MEDIA COVERS UP TERRORISM TO PROTECT ISLAM.”) And as the Washington Post reports, the general concept predates InfoWars:
Conservatives have long accused the media of obscuring the details and motivations of radical Islamic terrorists in an effort to downplay the role of religion. After Benghazi, the media were often accused of not sufficiently covering the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost – or refusing to label it terrorism.
The press might have stayed focused on why President Trump’s suggestion of a widespread media coverup is so dangerous were it not for Sean Spicer “working the refs,” as the Post’s Philip Bump put it. The White House press secretary said Trump’s vague suggestion that the media “doesn’t want to report” on terror attacks was actually a reference to “several instances” in which the media didn’t devote enough attention to terrorism.
“He felt members of the media don’t always cover some of those events to the extent that other events might get covered,” Spicer said. “Protests will get blown out of the water, and yet an attack or a foiled attack doesn’t necessarily get the same coverage.”
Spicer promised to provide specific examples, and hours later the White House put out a list of 78 terror attacks that they claim didn’t receive adequate media attention. It included several attacks that drew weeks of extensive coverage, like the killing of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, the Orlando nightclub shooting that claimed 49 lives last summer, and even the 2015 massacre in Paris that left 129 people dead. Also listed are several incidents that had no casualties, and thus received far less coverage.
The list appeared to be put together hastily, and it was far from comprehensive. There were strange omissions, like no mention of terror attacks in Israel or those carried out by white extremists. And the document includes spelling errors; Denmakr instead of Denmark and the repeated misspelling of attacker as attaker:
White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters pivoted even further from Trump’s claim that the “very, very dishonest press … have their reasons” for downplaying terrorism. Rather than suggesting some nefarious motive, she said there were simply too many terror attacks for the press to adequately cover them all.
“The real point here is that these terrorists attacks are so pervasive at this point that they do not spark the wall-to-wall coverage they once did,” she said. “If you look back just a few years ago, any one of these attacks would have been ubiquitous in every news outlet, and now they’re happening so often — at a rate of more than once every two weeks, according to the list — that networks are not devoting to each of them the same level of coverage they once did.”
Now, rather than focusing solely on the president’s remarks, the media had a bizarre list to pick apart. Some outlets noted that there are valid criticisms to be made about how the media covers terrorism — though Trump didn’t make them. Other journalists tried to disprove the assertion by recalling their coverage of incidents mentioned in the list.
Most outlets were trying to illustrate that the so-called evidence released by the White House does not back up Trump’s attack on the press. However, their discussion might have bolstered his larger point that Americans should be very alarmed about terrorism, even if there’s no new incident currently dominating media coverage. It’s hard not to be more worried about threats to national security when headlines remind you of the dozens of attacks committed by Islamic extremists, and terrorism is all anyone is talking about.