Another week, another entry in the annals of media bias, political speech and fake news.
At last week’s State of the Union Address to Congress, President Donald Trump channelled his inner reality show persona and crafted a number of applause lines by recognizing several invited guests whom you really can’t help but tip your hat to: a Tuskegee Airman, the young family of a deployed soldier and others.
Democrats, frustrated at the certainty of the impeachment acquittal the next day by the Senate, didn’t take it well. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi snubbed Trump by tweaking the introduction of the President. Trump returned the favor by declining to shake Pelosi’s hand.
But perhaps the most talked about response to the speech was Pelosi’s. As Trump basked in the adulation of his party after the completion of the speech, Pelosi stood behind him and dramatically ripped up the copy of the speech Trump had provided her when he entered, a few pages at a time.
Turning Point USA, a conservative organization aimed at mobilizing high school and college students, cut together a video with Trump praising one of his guests—it starts with Tuskegee Airman Brig. Gen. Charles McGee (Ret.)—or touting his accomplishments and Pelosi ripping up the speech.
Trump later put the video on his Twitter feed, and heads began to explode.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2020
Democrats take aim at political speech
Democrats asked Twitter and Facebook to remove all links to the video; starting with Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill.
The American people know that the President has no qualms about lying to them – but it is a shame to see Twitter and Facebook, sources of news for millions, do the same. https://t.co/OatHIOamsD
— Drew Hammill (@Drew_Hammill) February 7, 2020
California Rep. Ro Khanna:
Social media platforms are a place where people come for news & information.
They need to have certain standards.
Falsity has never been part of our 1st Amendment tradition. https://t.co/dwiDeKNd3D
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) February 7, 2020
Virginia Rep. Don Beyer:
This video is doctored. It has been up, and pinned to the President’s page, for nearly a day.
Trump posted it to deceive Americans about @SpeakerPelosi‘s actions and record.
— Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) February 7, 2020
And many more.
“Doctored,” “misleading,” “lying,” the video may be many things, but it really isn’t any of these; as Facebook’s communications officer Andy Stone noted:
Sorry, are you suggesting the President didn’t make those remarks and the Speaker didn’t rip the speech?
— Andy Stone (@andymstone) February 7, 2020
While neither Facebook nor Twitter removed the video—good for them—Twitter indicated that it will start labeling all political videos as “manipulated media.”
A Twitter spokeswoman said on Saturday that, beginning on March 5, the company would start applying labels that read “manipulated media” on heavily edited videos like Mr. Trump’s.
Twitter said it may also show a warning to users before they retweet or like a tweet with a manipulated video and may reduce the visibility of such tweets.
After all, if the Pelosi video is “manipulated,” then so is this one.
These sorts of videos have been a Hallmark of political speech in this country ever since there has been video. As The New York Times noted:
Of course, deceptive political ads aren’t a tool exclusive to the internet age, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said.
In 1968, Richard M. Nixon’s presidential campaign created an ad showing his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, addressing the Democratic National Convention interspersed with scenes of fighting in Vietnam, demonstrators being beaten in the streets of Chicago and poverty in Appalachia, she said.
In another ad, from 1960, John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign edited clips of Mr. Nixon to show him sweating, appearing distracted and nodding and seeming to agree with Mr. Kennedy while Mr. Kennedy was speaking, Professor Jamieson said.
Splicing in Pelosi’s ultimate response to the speech with specific statements is not “doctoring” a video in the traditional sense of the word. Television news has been doing this for decades—it’s called “editing.”
Media bias and adopting Democrats’ language
While the Times reporting on the subject is fair and comprehensive, other media outlets didn’t do nearly as good a job.
Inside, a San Francisco-based company that publishes a series of newsletters, including one on the media to which I subscribe, characterized the controversy this way:
Newsweek also adopted the Democrats’ language in it’s headline on the story.
DEMOCRATS ASK TWITTER, FACEBOOK TO REMOVE TRUMP’S DOCTORED CLIP OF PELOSI: ‘DECEPTIVE EFFORT TO MISLEAD AND MANIPULATE’
After handling their terminology correctly higher in the story, Politico succumbs further down.
Facebook and Twitter recently unveiled rules to crack down on altered media and so-called deepfakes, but the policies stop short of outright banning doctored videos.
Using “doctored” as a synonym for “edited,” is dishonest and it will likely come back to bite everyone who uses it, both the media and political class.
This is why they get called ‘Fake News’
The term itself has become a joke, but “Fake News” signals a deeper problem with much of the media. The mainstream media has not handled the Trump presidency well, and that perhaps is an understatement.
Let’s make it clear what Democrats are attempting to do here. They were asking media companies to squelch political speech. This should come as little surprise since this is also the political party that for the past decade has targeted the Citizens United case which would have allowed the government to ban movies and books.
You’d think that media companies which might be targeted using such a law by a fascist tyrant (like Trump?!) would be wary of calls to remove what is clearly well within what has been long considered normal political speech. You didn’t see the same calls just two months ago when Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s campaign unveiled a similarly “doctored” online ad of foreign leaders laughing about Trump.
It’s almost become a joke that when a Democrat does something bad, the story isn’t the Democrat’s bad behavior, it is “Republicans pounce” on whatever the issue is. When a Republican behaves bad, the story is the bad behavior and Democrats are simply responding.
It’s a double-standard that we expect from politicians, pundits and TV talking heads, but not from a media that continues to tout their lack of bias and commitment to the truth and democracy.
The media can, and should, do better.