The media gives Trump benefit of the doubt on abortion. He doesn’t deserve it

This was the week when the corporate media decided to mansplain Donald Trump to women and anyone else who might care about their reproductive rights.

“Don’t worry your pretty little heads about what he says,” we were told. “We’re going to tell you what he means.”

First, let’s tease out the most charitable take. The media always wants a ”story.” Thus, the thinking goes, Trump’s video statement this week describing his position on abortion must have been rooted in some political necessity. The Republican Party’s 2024 electoral hopes are obviously hemorrhaging on the issue of reproductive choice, so Trump must recognize his vulnerability on that issue, and must have felt it necessary to accommodate all of us by moderating his position. After all, it’s common for politicians to shape-shift on policy matters, even marginally. Those subtle changes in policy are eagerly picked up and parsed by the news media because they create conflict and drama that, in turn, provides a narrative for the press. 

But Trump is not a “normal” political candidate. For Trump, to acknowledge any shift or change on his abortion position would have gone against every ingrained aspect of his personality. It would be an admission, in effect, that he had miscalculated, or done something wrong. 

RELATED STORY: Trump's attempt to address abortion loses big—with everyone

So when Trump issued his scripted video—because he clearly couldn’t handle the intense discomfort of a live press conference—it was carefully crafted to acknowledge no error on his part. There was no sense he felt he’d miscalculated the impact of his long-asserted intent to overrule Roe v. Wade through his appointment of three virulently anti-abortion Supreme Court justices.

Instead, he bragged about it, spewing a bunch of ambiguous verbiage deliberately designed to say nothing else. For someone incapable of owning up to his mistakes, on abortion or anything else, it really couldn’t be otherwise.

But nearly all the mainstream media—Reuters, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NPR, and CBS—wanted that “story,” that sensible, rational narrative to present to their viewers. So what they all did—every one of them, in fact—was invent a story out of whole cloth: that this was evidence that Trump was actually behaving like a normal political human being and moderating, ever-so-slightly, his position on abortion.

In doing so, they did all Americans a grotesque disservice, because Trump didn’t change a thing about his position. It was the media that did that for him, as astutely pointed out by Media Matters’ Matt Gertz:

Former President Donald Trump’s strategy of ducking questions on abortion requires mainstream reporters to let him off the hook and leave pro-choice swing voters with the false impression that he is more moderate than he actually is. So far, it’s working.

Major news outlets are falsely claiming that Trump said abortion “should be left to the states” in a video announcement Monday on his Truth Social platform. In fact, Trump said only that abortion “will” be left to the states, a statement of law that does not address how he would respond if Congress passed a federal abortion ban or how regulators would treat abortion under a second Trump administration.

Gertz has the receipts. As he posted on the social platform X, the media complicity in distorting what Trump said was as repetitive as it was egregious:

The inaccurate claim that Trump said abortion "should be left to the states" is everywhere in mainstream coverage.

— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) April 8, 2024

This is not some minor quibble. What Gertz illustrates here is literally serial misinformation being spun by every recognized paladin of  “mainstream” news. And that misinformation was dutifully picked up and disseminated by subsidiary outlets to foster and spread a phony narrative that Trump has somehow moderated his position on abortion. He hasn’t.

By reporting in headline after headline that Trump said abortion “should”—rather than “will”—be left to the states, the media have created the impression that for Trump, the abortion issue is now settled, and implicitly, that he won’t take abortion restrictions further should he be elected again in 2024.

So, to the casual reader of these headlines, which is as far as many readers go, that means he’s abandoned his intent, expressed just last month, to establish a national abortion ban, and It means no effort to outlaw mifepristone through the FDA. However, as Kaili Joy Gray and Kos have both written on this site, that is not what Trump said at all.

Anyone in the mainstream news who has followed Trump over the past eight years should have known that he does not ever acknowledge his own misjudgments. He didn’t do it for his disastrous COVID-19 response. He never gave the slightest indication that he erred in the heinous conduct that led to either of his impeachments. 

So he wasn’t about to do it for an issue, such as abortion, for which he clearly has no personal sentiments. The problem here is that the media still continue to treat Trump as a normal politician, equivocating in a way that the media have come to expect. That conventional narrative may be a way to reassure themselves or their audience, but it’s false.  

Trump is fundamentally incapable of making such an admission. There has not been a single instance in Trump’s public career where he has admitted any error in judgment, let alone admitted it to the news media. His past actions can’t be questioned, and if they are questioned his response, invariably, is to become angry and dismissive. This peculiarity of Trump’s personality was entrenched by his mentor, Roy Cohn, one of the most malignant and ruthless political operatives of the 20th century. Cohn had a singular rule that he hammered regularly into his young protege: Never, ever admit mistakes.

Gertz observes that Trump’s statement was simply a reiteration of what the existing law on abortion actually is: nothing more, nothing less. The media ran with that and assumed that Trump was “limiting” himself by those statements. As Gertz points out, he did no such thing:

Trump did not say whether he would sign a federal abortion ban if Congress passed it. Nor did he say whether federal regulators under his administration would move to ban medication abortions or restrict sending them through the mail, or how he will vote on the abortion referendum in his home state of Florida, or whether he will continue to appoint judges who will further curtail abortion rights.

So the media narrative as implied—and literally spelled out in many headlines—was wholly false. Instead, what we got were headlines that had the pernicious effect of minimizing the threat Trump actually represents, and more importantly, misrepresenting what he does or does not intend to do on abortion.

Nor did the situation improve on the nightly news. Gertz followed up by examining Monday’s broadcasts for ABC’s “World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America,” NBC’s “Nightly News” and “Today Show,” and CBS’ “Evening News.” All of them reiterated that Trump said abortion “should” be left to the states. CBS’s broadcast put it in a chyron, while a reporter falsely intoned that Trump had “suggested today that the federal government should stay out of the abortion rights debate.”

Again, no such language appears anywhere in Trump’s video speech. As Gertz notes, ABC egregiously characterized Trump’s statements as a “reversal” of Trump’s prior statements regarding a national abortion ban. And, as Gertz observes, none of the networks addressed Trump’s ludicrous claim that Democrats support “infanticide.” 

Viewed in the most charitable light, this is a massive, disturbing failure on the part of nearly every major news outlet in this country. The damage will reverberate well into the campaign season as voters are now going to have to reconcile what they they were told by their feckless media, whose misleading headlines are typically the solitary source of their information, with what is actually at stake for voters as the 2024 election approaches.

But it’s also difficult to reconcile the glaringly collective aspect of this. As Gertz points out, Trump is someone who habitually, routinely lies, to the point where very little he says can be given any credulity at all. It’s difficult to fathom why nearly every major news outlet leapt to the same erroneous conclusion about what he said, and pushed it to their viewers and readers in the exact same fashion. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow also pointed this out, while acknowledging her high regard for all of the sources involved. 

And now it’s even harder to argue with those who suggest that the media has normalized Trump and his pathologies, that its fixation on the horse race aspect of the 2024 election has clouded its own ability to distinguish facts from fiction.

That doesn’t mean we need to cynically reject everything the corporate-owned media decides to report about Trump, but it also doesn’t make us conspiracy theorists for calling out such blatant and obvious failures. Again, to reiterate a common phrase, despite eight long years of Roy Cohn’s protege living rent-free in our heads, none of this is normal. It’s not normal for the American public, and it should never, ever be normalized for those whose job it is to keep that public informed.

RELATED STORY: Rachel Maddow dissects pathetic media coverage of Trump's abortion video

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