Brooke recently spoke with linguist George Lakoff about how the media can emphasize the truth obscured by President Trump's many dubious utterances, rather than the misinformation. It's a step-by-step prescription: first, tell the truth. Then, briefly mention the claim and point out that it contradicts the truth. Next, talk about what kind of claim it is and why he's employing it. And finally, return to the truth.
We apply Lakoff's advice to Trump's previously debunked but newly revived claims about voter fraud--and then get to the real stories of the week.
Tilliboyo ("Sunset") by Kronos Quartet
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. A couple of weeks ago, watching the political media chase their tails, we asked linguist George Lakoff for guidance on how to report on the erroneous emissions, whether by Twitter or mouth, of Donald J. Trump. In his first week in office, the nation's capital shook under a fusillade of flimflam. So we tried out Lakoff’s prescriptions on one recent presidential tweet. Lakoff says you cover his tweets by first not covering his tweet.
GEORGE LAKOFF: You begin by telling the truth and giving the evidence for that truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So here's the truth: This past November, the United States held a free and fair election in which Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes but won the Electoral College by 74 votes, thereby winning the presidency.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Then mention his tweet, point out that that contradicts the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wednesday’s tweet: “"I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and…even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!" The truth is that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. In one study, Law Professor Justin Levitt found 31 credible incidents out of 1 billion ballots cast. Even members of the GOP agree, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
HOUSE SPEAKER RYAN: I've seen no evidence to that effect and I’ve made that very, very clear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Trump's own campaign has argued that, quote, “All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.” So George, what do we do now?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Talk about what kind of tweet this is. You have to understand what the framing is and what the framing is he’s trying to avoid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trump’s Twitter call to investigate millions of allegedly fraudulent votes is what Lakoff calls a tweet of preemptive framing.
GEORGE LAKOFF: And the idea of preemptive framing is to frame an issue before other people get a chance to, to put the idea out there first.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If Trump reframes his loss of the popular vote as tainted, he induces us to discuss it through that lens. It’s also a tweet of diversion, bending the media’s focus to the investigation and away from that irksome popular vote, which Trump views as a challenge to his mandate. And this tweet also fits a third category in Lakoff’s tweet taxonomy, the trial balloon.
GEORGE LAKOFF: He’s gonna see how people react to this and then he’ll know what to do in the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does he have popular support for a wholesale investigation into voter fraud? Run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. So what should we do when Trump issues a tweet to divert us from real issues?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Keep going back to substance and the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, there are many, many, many substantial things that happened this week. President Trump kicked off his term with a flurry of executive actions.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump has signed an executive order pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The president re-implemented an order banning American tax money for funding abortions in other countries. It’s known as the “Mexico City Policy.”
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump also signed a series of new executive orders earlier today, including a pair to advance the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To name just a few. He’s also lost the entire senior administrative team of the State Department, signed an order that could weaken the Affordable Care Act, met with UK Prime Minister Theresa May and kept James Comey on as head of the FBI. Oh boy, not done yet.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump has signed an order to build a wall on the US border with Mexico, one of his main campaign promises.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The order also curtails federal funding for sanctuary cities, hires 5,000 more border patrol agents and ends the Obama-era practice of catch and release.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then there was this.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Yesterday, the Trump administration instituted a media blackout at the EPA. It banned agency employees from giving social media updates or speaking with reporters and it barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The EPA media blackout came on the heels of another disquieting move, calling for the National Park Service to silence its Twitter accounts. Most parks fell into line, but not all.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Badlands National Park was bad to the bone in defiance of Trump. A South Dakota Parks Twitter account fired off a tweet storm of climate science data. It was re-tweeted tens of thousands of times before being deleted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems other Park Service staffers defied the administration’s orders by spontaneously producing alternative unregulated social media accounts.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The first was a Twitter account called AltUSNatParkService. It was allegedly run by Park Service employees and quickly started sending out climate change facts and taunting the new president, saying, you can take our official Twitter but you’ll never take our free time.