Why you should care
Because once again, we’re missing the point.
The president has a soft spot for Alabama.
It’s the state that first came out in force for him, at an August 2015 football stadium rally of 30,000 people that proved Trump was a durable political phenomenon. It delivered him 62 percent of the vote against Hillary Clinton, among the highest marks in the country. And the state’s own Jeff Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump (even if the president did eventually turn on him as attorney general).
So last weekend Trump was just looking out for his people when he wrongly warned Alabama on Twitter that it was in the path of Hurricane Dorian, sparking a debate that encapsulates so much about Trump and the media cauldron we live in.
It all started when Trump ditched a trip to Europe as Dorian approached, using his obsessively followed Twitter account as a news-update service in between golf rounds. In one tweet he included Alabama in a list of states where Dorian could hit. That was not true, and the National Weather Service — an arm of Trump’s federal government — quickly corrected him.
Catching a provable misstatement is an easy game for the press, ultimately serving both Trump and the Fourth Estate.
Mistakes happen, and it’s doubtful that the good people of Mobile were relying on @realDonaldTrump for their forecasts. But this is Donald Trump we’re talking about. No admissions of fault, however minor, are allowed, and the finger must be pointed back at the accuser. On Wednesday, he staged a press briefing on the hurricane’s path featuring a chart obviously altered with a Sharpie pen to show Alabama in the plausible line of fire. The Washington Post later reported that Trump, a well-known user of the black felt-tipped pens, Sharpied it himself. He continued to obsessively tweet about the episode and call up old wind maps to show that at some point Alabama could have possibly been touched by the storm, even as it was pounding the Carolina coastline.
It should be noted that according to 18 U.S. Code §2704, knowingly disseminating a false weather forecast is a crime. Russian collusion might have flopped, but this — this — level of criminality will surely sink him. Someone get Jerry Nadler on the line.
Of course, #sharpiegate stirred up a Category 5 cable TV news storm, which led to press secretary Stephanie Grisham sparring on Twitter with CNN about its own mislabeled map — which, unlike the president’s, was corrected.
Thanks, Stephanie. Yes, we made a mistake (which we fixed in less than 30 seconds). And now we are admitting it. You all should try it sometime.— CNN Communications (@CNNPR) September 5, 2019
Given the weather synergy, the bizarre episode at first calls to mind Trump’s shooting paper towels like basketballs into a crowd in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. That image came to hold wider resonance for Trump’s half-hearted response to the disaster. In this case, we don’t yet know the full extent of Dorian’s damage and how Trump’s government will respond.
So really, this tempest most resembles the Great Inauguration Crowd Size Debate of 2017.
Then press secretary Sean Spicer declared Trump’s crowd to be the biggest in history. Like the Alabama warning, this was obviously not true and was contradicted by Trump’s own government (in this case National Park Service photographs, which royally pissed off the new POTUS). It rolled into a huge dispute with the media, with the White House basically saying the press is out to get Trump and the public shouldn’t believe their lying eyes.
Catching a provable misstatement is an easy game for the press, ultimately serving both Trump and the Fourth Estate. The press is holding the president “accountable”; pro-Trump forces roll their eyes at trivial squabbles and say their man is unfairly maligned — rinse and repeat.
But focusing so much on the small lies — easily fact-checked and impossible to defend with a straight face or pen — risks missing bigger ones about the economy, the trade war and more. Those typically fall in the bucket of spin, a politician presenting a vision of a country on the rise, or at least one that would tank if you don’t reelect him.
Those words aren’t as easy to pick apart as a crowd count or a weather forecast. The truth can be slippery. But debates over trivia just cause the public to tune out the press, as the storm clouds of 2020 gather.