Gordon Weil

Gordon Weil

Donald Trump is an honest man.

When the president says the traditional media, sometimes labeled “heritage,” “main stream.” or “lame steam,” is publishing “fake news,” he believes it.

How can he think that traditional media reports, backed by sound evidence, are fake, while his claims are accurate? The answer lies in the difference between the worldview of Trump and, say, the New York Times.

Take, for example, Trump’s views that Middle Eastern immigrants are causing unrest, even crime, in the Scandinavian paradise called Sweden. The traditional media immediately jumps to point out there has been no significant surge in crime there and certainly nothing big from immigrants.

Trump does not mean to be taken literally about Sweden. His point is that immigrants disrupt society. He uses crime as a way of describing that disruption. He believes that immigrants cause problems even in Sweden, and that is the clear message of his claim.

In short, he wants you to get his point and not worry about his facts. If the Times takes him to task because he got the facts about Sweden wrong, he slams the door on the Times, because it misses his point.

Some of his closest advisors maintain that his view should be given deference by the media, because he was elected president. If he says it, it must be true. That’s what I have described as “presidential facts” and Kellyanne Conway, one of his advisors, called “alternative facts.”

Beyond relying on his presidential standing, Trump may recall his New York days when he could influence tabloids to accept his version of celebrity gossip, according to a report by a columnist there. That changes when you are president and not merely a colorful real estate mogul.

Trump loves flattery and showers himself with it. When the media finds fault with him, he seems to regard that as “fake news.”

Political leaders sometimes say they “take responsibility” or others charge they should be “held accountable” for their miscues. In practice, with infrequent elections, the only way they can be held accountable occurs when the media highlights their errors.

Politicians do not feel positive about the press that holds them accountable, and Trump, who may deny his own responsibility, is like any other politician.

Many of his supporters continue to line up with him in this war over “fake news.” Their support may be explained by a couple of recent books showing that sound evidence might not change minds.

They report that if you have confidence in another person, you may well accept that person’s version of the facts on matters you do not fully understand. The link that gives some people blank-check confidence in Trump is their common desire to expel illegal immigrants.

From that agreement can flow support for Trump’s views on other issues like the Affordable Care Act and trade, about which supporters may have little or no knowledge. They may get to the point where they reject any facts that contradict Trump’s assertions.

At that point, Trump does not have to travel far to call the media, “the enemy of the people.” a phrase right out Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. “The people” consider illegal immigrants dangerous, and if the Times undermines that view, it becomes their enemy.

Some might call Trump’s view a reflection of living in an alternative reality. He sees events, countries, threats and success from a different perspective. Simply attacking his willingness to ignore objective evidence can prove to be frustrating and, even worse, counterproductive.

The media needs to pile up hard evidence and keep presenting it while avoiding what one writer has called “hyperventilating.” Less righteous fury and more explanatory journalism is needed. The traditional media should stop assuming readers and viewers know more than they really do.

If Trump is an honest man in an alternate world, it does not mean that any political statement without evidence is similarly motivated. Some of them are outright lies — when politicians tell you something they know to be untrue.

Take voting. In theory, some people may want to vote without eligibility or more than once. There is no evidence this happens beyond a handful of people across the entire country. Some Republicans admit the claim is untrue. Their efforts to tighten voting access are not about fraud but about turning away Democratic voters.

Deeply held false beliefs exist in the country, and it is difficult to see how they can be quickly corrected. No matter the challenge, the responsible media should provide more light than heat and keep at it.

Gordon Weil is a former public official. He lives in Harpswell.

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