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A man, I think his name was Joe, entered the diner where he had eaten breakfast earlier that morning. He stood for a few moments, checked his pockets and glanced at the other customers. Walking over to the counter, he asked the cashier if she had recovered his wallet or if anyone turned it in. When she said no, the man smiled and shook his head. He left saying he would check again later.
Here’s a different version of the same story:
A suspect, identified later as Joseph Harvey McHale, barged into the diner. Witnesses say he had already been lurking there once before that morning. He was agitated and aggressive. He patted a bulge in his jacket and glared at the frightened customers who only moments before had been peacefully enjoying their meals.
He charged toward the counter and confronted an elderly cashier named Betty. He shouted at Betty and demanded money. Nearly in tears, Betty claimed she couldn’t give him any money. Clearly, Joe didn’t believe the terrified woman. He backed away slowly and, with a threatening smirk on his lips, made his way to the door. He stopped, turned towards Betty and threatened to keep coming back until he got what he wanted.
Now the first Joe sounds to me like a guy who had some bad luck and was hoping to get his property back. The second Joe, complete with middle and last name, sounds like a lunatic the police should probably know about.
This simple twisting of a story and using consciously loaded words shows how easy it is to shade and colour an event in a way that a certain impression is left with the audience. We all do it, whether explaining ourselves to a boss or trying to entertain friends in recounting something that happened to us.
I think Donald Trump is Joe and the versions of the stories being told about the man are indicative of how reporting the news has, in this looking-glass age of his young administration, turned into something that looks less like traditional reporting and more like storytelling.
Last week, President Trump held a campaign-style rally in Phoenix. In his speech, Trump trotted out all the usual suspects in his agenda of putting America first. He talked about a strong military, a devotion to law and order, and the desire to enforce immigration law. He blasted the media and was characteristically short on specifics.
His tenor and tone should have come as no surprise to anyone – they were not much different from the many dozens of speeches he delivered during the 2016 election campaign or from the remarks he made at his inauguration in January.
Why, then, was the speech portrayed in many corners of the media as proof that the man who is president is somehow unfit to be president? Don Lemon of CNN called the speech disgraceful, called the president unhinged and accused Trump of being a liar.
Even a publication as sober and serious as the Wall Street Journal has had to remind its reporters to, well, stick to reporting. Gerald Baker, the editor in chief, had to rein in his staff after reviewing the stories they filed on the president’s Phoenix speech. Sorry. This is commentary dressed up as news reporting, Mr. Baker wrote in an email. Could we please just stick to reporting what he said rather than packaging it in exegesis and selective criticism? he directed in a followup.
It may be time for everyone to use the tools available to them thanks to Al Gore’s Internet and watch unfiltered, unedited and, above all, complete versions of Trump’s speeches and – gasp – take the full measure of the man for themselves. It may be that traditional sources of news and information have become too caught up in their private war with the American president to be objective or even reliable.
Whatever conclusion we reach – whether Trump be beauty or beast – at least the eye of the beholder will be our own.
Troy Media columnist Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer and occasional lawyer. Blending insight and wit, he brings a unique perspective to the issues of the day.
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