When Pope Francis spoke about the media last month, his remarks were seized on in two ways: First, they were thrust into a roiling national media conversation about “fake news” and the election of Donald Trump. Second, they were used as an indictment of Pope Francis himself.
The outcry had the typical features of the hyper-critical assessments of Pope Francis. It applied the harshest interpretation possible interpretation (tying the terms to sex), registered the greatest possible alarm, and thereby obscured what Pope Francis really said (I could write a book …).
In fact, the Pope helpfully identified four temptations our news media fall into — and their application to Trump goes far beyond “fake news.”
The media’s first temptation is to character assassination.
Reporters “can be tempted by calumny,” said Pope Francis. “Every person has the right to a good reputation, but perhaps in their previous life, or 10 years ago, they had a problem with justice, or a problem in their family life, and bringing this to light is serious and harmful; it can annul a person.”
He pointed out that this is especially common in politics. It certainly is. It’s called “opposition research”: You try to find something in your opponent’s past that makes them look bad and throw it to the media.
With George W. Bush in 2000 it was a 1976 drunk driving arrest. With John Kerry in 2004 it was the Swift Boat Veterans. In 2008, it was the ridiculing of Sarah Palin and in 2012 the airwaves were overwhelmed with negative ads, mostly targeting Mitt Romney.
With Trump in 2016, a sexually explicit 2005 tape of his offensive sexual comments was meant to put the final nail in his campaign’s chances.
But Trump responded by giving as good as he got.
Hillary “brings up words that I said 11 years ago — I think it’s disgraceful, and she should be ashamed of herself, to tell you the truth,” Trump said in the final presidential debate. “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women — attacked them viciously.”
The second temptation is to partial information.
Pope Francis identified this temptation as “saying only a part of the truth, and not the rest. … therefore it is not possible to make a serious judgement,” he said. “Opinion is guided in one direction.”
Liberal activist and comedian Bill Maher described how the media’s love for this temptation destroyed their credibility by crying wolf.
“Liberals made a big mistake because we attacked [President Bush] like he was the end of the world,” he said. “He wasn’t.” The same with Romney and John McCain. “They were honorable men who we disagreed with. And we should have kept it that way. So we cried wolf. And that was wrong,” Maher said.
He said the result was Trump – whom he considers a dishonorable man. Maybe it is true that, on Trump, the media is still crying wolf — but Trump’s rise marks the moment that the public stopped taking the media seriously precisely because of this tendency.
The media’s third and fourth temptations are the ones that got Francis in trouble. But Trump proves these most of all.
Pope Francis next accused the media of falling prey to coprophilia, “always wanting to communicate scandal, to communicate ugly things, even though they may be true.”
The media definitely practiced this against Trump. One study found 91% of coverage of Trump negative. But for Trump, the old maxim was truer than ever: Bad press is good press, because it means you’re getting noticed.
“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?” said CBS chief Les Moonves halfway through the campaign. “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. … I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Trump, the former professional wrestling figure and reality TV star with the signature phrase “You’re fired” knows all about the public’s appetite for the harsh and negative.
Like a supervillain turning the superhero’s death rays back at him, Trump used our love of the sensational and the negative against the media.
“Coprophagia, said Francis, “can do great harm.”
How to solve it? Maybe the same way we cure it in dogs: intervene with better food when the temptation strikes. You’re reading Aleteia. That’s a good start.