The News Media’s State of Denial

By Mark Jacob

PBS reported last week that Donald Trump “has adamantly denied any wrongdoing” in the classified documents case.

Why use the word “adamantly”?

Was PBS trying to suggest that Trump really, really, really meant it? Was it trying to come across as super-fair to Trump? Certainly, journalists should let someone deny a charge when they report that someone is accused of it. But why tart up the denial with an adverb that adds heft to their denial?   

Why say someone “strongly denied” something if you’re never going to say someone “weakly denied” something?

When news outlets enhance someone’s denial, they reward their performance. Newsmakers seem to get an extra-special denial from journalists if their voice trembles or their face gets flush.

The Washington Post said Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh “adamantly denied” Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that he sexually assaulted her when they were young. But the Post never said Blasey Ford “adamantly accused” or “strongly accused” Kavanaugh. Did Kavanaugh earn an “adamantly” in the Post by getting weepy in front of Congress?

The New York Times recently said James Lewis, longtime suspect in the 1982 Tylenol murders in the Chicago area, “steadfastly denied” he had put poison in the pain reliever. “Steadfast” seems like an overly noble description of Lewis, who did prison time for trying to extort Tylenol’s manufacturer.

CBS News reported that Elizabeth Holmes “strongly denied” criminal charges before a jury convicted her in the Theranos blood-testing fraud case. Turns out, Holmes’ denial was “strong” but wrong.

It’s better to simply say the person “denied” it and leave it at that.

Of course, denials mean less these days, as political lies become increasingly common.

Testifying to Congress under oath recently, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. denied being anti-vax, insisting: “I have never told the public to avoid vaccination.” But fact-checkers quickly put the lie to that, citing a 2021 podcast in which RFK Jr. said: “I see somebody on a hiking trail carrying a little baby and I say to him, better not get them vaccinated.”

And then there’s Trump. In a Truth Social post last December, Trump repeated his lie that the 2020 election was stolen and offered two immediate solutions: either he be declared the winner or a new election be held. He added: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”

The idea of “terminating” the Constitution raised eyebrows, but it should have raised much louder alarms in the nation’s newsrooms. Trump has gotten journalists so accustomed to his toxic rhetoric that they chronically under-react to it.

A day after calling for termination of the Constitution, Trump denied calling for termination of the Constitution. Telling us not to believe our lying eyes, he posted: “The Fake News is actually trying to convince the American People that I said I wanted to ‘terminate’ the Constitution. This is simply more DISINFORMATION & LIES.” 

Politico’s story about Trump’s absurd denial was headlined: “Trump denies he suggested ‘termination’ of Constitution, without deleting post.” That kind of headline did Trump a favor. A better headline would have been: “Trump’s denial is a lie: He indeed called for ‘termination’ of the Constitution.”

In recent years, Trump has “vigorously denied,” “angrily denied,” “strongly denied,” “repeatedly denied” and “emphatically denied.” But what if the news media put Trump’s denials in more context? What if they said, “Donald Trump, who made more than 30,000 false or misleading statements as president, denied …”?

That would be factually accurate and provide consumers with relevant information to help them assess the credibility of Trump’s denial. But of course it would come across as biased, so it will never happen.

That’s why right-wing disinformation is so effective: Mainstream news media don’t want to appear biased, even if it’s biased in favor of the truth.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.