On Both Sides, The Media Is Peddling A False Dilemma About Trump

An op-ed headline in The Washington Post this week intrigued me: “Our town’s newspaper was mocked for endorsing Trump. Here’s what we think now.”

The column was from Gary Abernathy, publisher and editor of the Hillsboro, Ohio Times-Gazette. It was accompanied by a photo of an idyllic rural scene: a field of soybeans, a combine harvester, a setting sun.

Abernathy is eminently reasonable, saying Trump’s tweets are “as annoying to his supporters as to his opponents” and pointing out that a local heroin epidemic is more important to their community than Comey or the Russians. Fair enough.

Where he goes astray, though, is where many seem to go astray. “What Trump’s supporters also appreciate about him,” writes Abernathy, “are the very attributes for which he is relentlessly criticized in the media… They’re weary of politicians whose every statement seems carefully crafted to say nothing and offend no one.”



He goes further: “I know what candidates and politicians are supposed to say and how they are supposed to say it. I sometimes find myself cringing at things Trump says, wishing he would behave more like a typical politician. But then I remind myself that if he did, he would likely lose the support of the grass-roots movement that put him where he is.”

And there it is: the false dilemma.

False dilemmas, also known as the either-or fallacy, are when a situation is presented as a choice between only two options, when in reality there may be many more.

George W Bush used this trick after 9/11: “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” But the options were deceptive. It was entirely possible to be not with the terrorists and yet not approve of the President’s response.

The thing that made Bush’s scenario super-effective was that one of the options is undesirable. After all, who would want to be with the terrorists?

So what’s the false dilemma with Trump? The options presented in Abernathy’s commentary are clear: either he behaves “like a typical politician…” or he says things that make you cringe.

To put it another way: politicians are either lying or they’re offending people.

It isn’t just Abernathy offering this artificially limited choice, and I’m not bringing it up to trash a Trump supporter. This bogus either/or narrative has been presented in all sorts of media outlets: from HuffPo to Real Clear Politics to the Washington Examiner. Either you “tell it like it is” and make people mad, or you lie, and don’t. The truth, it seems, is only ever awful.

Like the “with us or with the terrorists” choice, one of these options is undesirable. Nobody wants a politician who lies. Nobody wants a politician who doesn’t tell it like it is.

But isn’t there another option? Isn’t it possible to be both truthful and not cringe-inducing?

This is the narrative the media needs to present: that our options are greater than a simple -- yet false -- choice between lies or nastiness.

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a flock of sheep standing under a billboard. On the billboard, a wolf in a suit is saying, “I am going to eat you.” One sheep says to the other, “He tells it like it is.”

But their choice should not be limited to a wolf or a liar. There must be an honest sheep in there, one who “tells it like it is” and yet doesn’t make even its own supporters cringe.

We’ve been sold a false choice between two unpalatable options. We deserve more.

7 comments about "On Both Sides, The Media Is Peddling A False Dilemma About Trump ".
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  1. Laurie Sullivan from lauriesullivan, June 9, 2017 at 10:35 a.m.

    Nice job on this piece!

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, June 9, 2017 at 12:45 p.m.

    The lesser of two evils. Voters had a Hobson's choice. (Third-party candidates or staying home in protest only function the same outcome by helping just one of the two become the chosen.)

  3. Bill Burnett from Good Citizen Media Group, June 9, 2017 at 1:43 p.m.

    This is an excellent analysis. A fresh point about the mess we're in...what a concept.Of course the problem with President 45 is not merely that he's cringe producing.  He's a fake and a liar and he's not remotely delivering what he promised his supporters.  The people of Hillsboro Ohio will realize this eventually.  Many may already have.  I think Elizabeth Warren is an excellent example of a politician who makes her points plainly and represents her followers, without prevarication, and without producing cringes.

  4. Aarona Jordan from CBS Digital, June 9, 2017 at 2:05 p.m.

    Excellent insight.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 9, 2017 at 4:08 p.m.

    We need you, Kaila.

  6. John Sperling from Binary Pulse, June 13, 2017 at 8:43 p.m.

    Long live reason! Well-done.

  7. Tom Tyler from GCTVTexas, June 16, 2017 at 3:33 p.m.

    The media is lying everyday about Trump and misleading the public. The NYT, the Washpost and CBNBABCNN have absolutely no credibility as "news agencies" when it comes to covering Trump.

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