A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Whenever President Trump ventures off Fox and gives an interview on another major network, something is instantly apparent: His information diet.
I would argue it is an unhealthy, poisoned info diet – and CNN reporter Daniel Dale’s fact-checks would back me up.
Whether healthy or not, almost everything about the Trump era can be understood through his sources of info. It was obvious during his Thursday night town hall on NBC, when Savannah Guthrie repeatedly pointed out that he was misinformed. And he responded with vague assertions like “I read it someplace” and “I’ve heard many different stories” and “people are saying.”
Here’s the thing: When Trump calls his friends on Fox and other right-wing channels, his evasions and excuses slip right through. Facilitators like Maria Bartiromo and Mark Levin don’t second-guess his stats and smears because they subsist on the same info-diet he does. When Trump gives a rare interview outside his pro-Trump media universe, his falsehoods and flimsy sources are instantly exposed.
Thursday night was Trump’s first time taking tough questions from a TV interviewer since his coronavirus infection — and from a former litigator no less. It was one of the finest moments of Guthrie’s career. During and after the town hall, she was widely praised in journalism circles for prodding Trump with followups and pushing back at his distortions. And she was attacked in a statement issued by Trump’s campaign, which tells you everything you need to know. More on Guthrie’s questions below, but I want to zoom in on Trump’s answers first…
From Tucker’s lips to Trump’s lies
Trump’s mixed messages about masks are a direct result of his poisoned media diet. On Tuesday night “Tucker Carlson Tonight” sowed doubt about masks and Carlson said, in typical Tucker-speak, “someone has been lying to us, many people, actually.” The show ran a banner that shouted “PEOPLE THAT WORE MASKS STILL GOT CORONAVIRUS” and distorted the meaning of a small study so that Carlson could ridicule government experts. “Almost everyone” in the study, “85%, who got the coronavirus in July, was wearing a mask, and they were infected anyway,” Carlson said. “So clearly this doesn’t work the way they tell us it works.”
Carlson “misrepresented” the study, as PolitiFact explained here. But the host doubled down on Wednesday night, and Trump brought it up several times on Thursday, including at the town hall. “Just the other day,” he said, “they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it.” That’s a gross distortion of Carlson’s original distortion!
Guthrie interjected: “They didn’t say that. I know that study. That’s not–”
“Well, that’s what I heard,” Trump said, “and that’s what I saw. And regardless…”
That’s how it always goes with Trump: “What I heard” and “what I saw.” He brought up the 85% figure again a little bit later, and Guthrie was ready: “I looked at that report, it’s not about mask wearing, it was neutral on the question of masks.”
Trump then tried to reach an agreement with her, in what looked to me like an attempt to reach out to the “suburban moms” he’s been pleading for support from: “Savannah, Savannah, we’re on the same side. I say wear the masks, I’m fine with it, I have no problem. We’re on the same side.” Read Dale’s fact-check here…
Holding Trump accountable for his retweets
Trump consumes information from television, from articles printed out by his aides, from phone calls with allies, and from Twitter. He has a long history of retweeting sketchy Twitter accounts. His social media behavior reveals a lot about his info-diet.
At the town hall, Guthrie called him out for retweeting “to your 87 million followers a conspiracy theory that Joe Biden orchestrated to have SEAL Team Six… killed to cover up the fake death of bin Laden. Now, why would you send a lie like that to your followers?” Trump’s answer was a dodge: “I know nothing about that.” Guthrie responded, “You retweeted it!” Then he tried to excuse his behavior, saying “that was an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves. I don’t take a position.”
His shrug of an answer reminded me of the famous Fox News slogan “we report, you decide,” except Trump doesn’t do any reporting, he just shares crazed conspiracy theories with his followers and then says they “can decide for themselves.”
Guthrie channels the American voter
Oliver Darcy writes: “A good barometer for judging a Trump interview is whether the anchor asks the president the questions and follow ups on the minds of voters sitting at home and watching. This sounds simple, but often fails to happen in interviews with Trump, as he does his best to roll over the person asking him questions. Guthrie, however, excelled and did not let Trump off the hook. When Trump, for instance, declined to take responsibility for promoting a deranged Bin Laden conspiracy theory by arguing that he only retweeted ‘an opinion of someone,’ Guthrie responded by channeling what most people watching were probably thinking. ‘You’re the President!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.’ Those moments, which occurred over and over, made Guthrie’s interview worth watching.”
Trump’s horrifying QAnon answer
Oliver Darcy writes: “Trump not only refused to condemn the QAnon conspiracy theory, but he claimed (again) to be ignorant of the movement, much to the disbelief of Guthrie. Then, after claiming not to know much about QAnon, the president actually praised the virtual cult for being ‘very strongly against pedophilia.’ NBC’s resident QAnon reporter Ben Collins noted, ‘Outside of a straight up endorsement, this is about as about as close to a dream scenario for QAnon followers as is humanly possible.’”
Meanwhile, over on ABC…
This seemed to be the biggest news from Biden’s event, per CNN’s Maeve Reston: Biden “reiterated once again that he is ‘not a fan’ of court packing but said that his position will depend on how the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett is ‘handled…’ Pressed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if voters have a right to know about his position, he said, ‘They do have a right to know where I stand. They have a right to know where I stand before they vote.’ ‘So you’ll come out with a clear position before Election Day?’ Stephanopoulos asked. Biden replied, ‘Yes. Depending on how they handle this…’”
>> NYT’s Nate Cohn: “It is exceptionally jarring to switch between the two town halls tonight. Like two different planets.”
>> Variety’s Brian Steinberg: “I don’t know what NBC pays @SavannahGuthrie but execs should give her a whopping bonus this year bc she might just get them out of one of the company’s biggest messes in years…”
>> Snap’s Peter Hamby: “Two days of How Dare You, NBC! takes conclude with an avalanche of applause tweets for @SavannahGuthrie. News cycles can be really dumb these days…”
>> NYT’s Annie Karni: “Savannah Guthrie spent most of the NBC News town hall tearing into President Trump with a series of quick-paced, conversational questions that managed to put the president on the spot and successfully reveal his evasions in a way that few of his interlocutors have managed…”
>> Bloomberg’s Ryan Teague Beckwith: “I just switched over from the Trump to Biden town halls and it’s like switching from ‘Ancient Aliens’ to PBS NewsHour.”
Looking back at the town hall turmoil…
I’m not sure anyone will remember this kerfuffle in a day or two, but, for the record…
– I heard a sense of relief among both NBC and ABC News execs that the town halls, while “dueling,” both went well…
– Jeremy Barr’s headline for WaPo afterward: “Savannah Guthrie grilled Trump like few others have, taking the heat off NBC for its town hall…”
– Beforehand, “MSNBC head Phil Griffin strongly disagreed with NBC News President Noah Oppenheim’s decision to unilaterally move forward with the town hall during that time slot,” Politico’s Marc Caputo reported…
– At an afternoon rally in NC, Trump attacked “Concast” and NBC at great/awful length…
– MSNBC did not even show a countdown clock for the town hall in the minutes leading up to 8pm. Right afterward, Rachel Maddow greeted her viewers by saying “Well, THAT happened…”