Donald Trump is a serial liar. Okay, to be a bit less Trumpian about it, he has trouble with the truth. If you look at Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning site that examines candidates’ pronouncements for accuracy, 76 percent of Trump’s statements are rated either “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire,” which is to say off-the-charts false. By comparison, Hillary Clinton’s total is 29 percent.
But if Trump doesn’t cotton much to the truth, he doesn’t seem to cotton much to his own ideas, either. He waffles, flip-flops and obfuscates, sometimes changing positions from one press appearance to the next, as Peter Alexander reported on NBC Nightly News last week—a rare television news critique of Trump.
I say “rare” because most of the time, as Glenn Kessler noted in The Washington Post last week, MSM—the mainstream media—just sit back and let Trump unleash his whoppers without any pushback, even as they criticize his manners and attitude.
In an ordinary political season, perhaps Trump would be under fire for his habitual untruths, like the one that Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. This time around, though, neither the media nor the public—least of all his supporters—seem to care. Which leads to the inescapable conclusion that these days, as far as our political discourse goes, truth, logic, reason and consistency don’t seem to count for very much.
The question is why.
One simple explanation is that Trump has changed the rules. He is not a politician but a provocateur, and he isn’t held to the same standards as Clinton or Bernie Sanders or even Cruz, all of whom actually have policies. For Trump, policies are beside the point.
Another explanation is that long before Trump, social scientists observed that truth matters less to people than reinforcement, and that most of us have the ability to reformulate misstatements into truth so long as they conform to our own biases. We believe what we believe, and we are not changing even in the face of opposing facts (without this capacity for self-deception there would be no Fox News).
There is, however, another and even more terrifying explanation as to why the truth doesn’t seem to matter. It has less to do with Trump or our own proclivities to reshape reality than it has to do with infotainment—with the idea that a lot of information isn’t primarily about education or elevation, where truth matters, but entertainment, where it doesn’t. You might call it “the Winchell Effect.”
Walter Winchell, about whom I wrote a 1994 biography, was a hugely popular New York-based gossip columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain and an equally popular radio personality, although saying that is a little like saying that Michael Jordan was a basketball player. Winchell was the gossip columnist, with an estimated daily audience of 50 million. He practically invented the form, and the form was a long chain of snippets—rumor, prediction, innuendo—racing down the page, separated by ellipses.
Some of these snippets were scarcely more than a noun, a verb and an object: Mr. So-and-so is “that way” about Miss So-and-so. Does her husband know? In this way, Winchell became not only the minimalist master of gossip but also, quite possibly, the first tweeter—before Twitter.
If you are wondering how this is relevant to the 2016 campaign, in time Winchell turned his roving eye from entertainment to politics, deploying exactly the same arsenal to the latter as he had to the former. Thus did gossip leap the tracks from Hollywood and Broadway to Washington. In this, Winchell’s approach was a precursor of modern election coverage. He was obsessed with letting readers in on what was going to happen—the clairvoyance of rumor—rather than with what was happening or what it actually meant. That is, he was a horse-race handicapper long before horse-race coverage became the dominant form of political journalism.
One prominent example: At the behest of the White House, Winchell spent months floating trial balloons for Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ambitions for a third term. Basically, it was presidentially endorsed gossip.
But Winchell’s influence didn’t stop at conflating entertainment with politics—and this is where the indifference to truth comes in. Winchell reported dozens of tidbits of gossip each day. Presumably, that’s why people read him or listened to him on the radio; they wanted to be ahead of the curve. But the vast majority of these tidbits were unverifiable, and nearly half of the flashes that were verifiable turned out to be false, according to a survey conducted for a six-part New Yorker profile of Winchell by St. Clair McKelway. Since there was always a passel of new scoops every day, no one seemed to notice—or care—that he was usually wrong.
One can only assume this was because readers seemed to relish the excitement of the “news” more than they desired its accuracy. Or, to put it another way, gossip was entertainment, not information. Thus the Winchell Effect.
The Winchell Effect is alive and well in today’s politics in two respects. First, candidates can get away with saying pretty much anything they want without being held accountable so long as what they say is entertaining and so long as they keep the comments coming. Trump has been the major beneficiary of this disinclination by the MSM to examine statements. The blast of his utterances always supersedes their substance. And the MSM plays along.
To wit: Trump announced his tax plan way back in September 2015. With kudos to the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, which did look at his plan, it is just last week that most of the MSM are getting around to examining it—even as he changes it. (I may have missed it, but I still have yet to see a single story delving into Trump’s tax policies on the network news.)
Perhaps better late than never, but the fact that he could throw out wild schemes involving trillions of dollars without the media feeling the need to vet them means that primary voters had no way to understand his tax plan and see its flaws. Of course, from the MSM’s perspective, analyzing a plan would be tackling policy, not providing entertainment. And make no mistake, the candidate and the mainstream media are in the entertainment business.
And that is the second way in which the Winchell Effect changes our politics. If candidates are not accountable, neither are the political media. Like Winchell, they are not only besotted with strategies, polls, predictions, and—in the case of a few cable networks—wild, unverifiable charges, they are, like Winchell, seldom challenged when they get it all wrong.
They were wrong about Trump not being a serious candidate. They were wrong about Jeb Bush’s and Marco Rubio’s chances to get the nomination. They were wrong about the likelihood of a contested GOP convention. Since they won’t call one another out, no one calls them out. In effect, they are implicated in the Winchell Effect as much as Trump is, which may be one reason why they don’t challenge him. Neither Trump nor the press has to be right. They just have to keep ginning up the excitement.
What this means is that our politics is no longer politics in the traditional sense of policy and governance. It is, as most of us realize, a show, a game, an ongoing reality TV saga. This is nothing new. The media have been bored with policy for a long time and have been pressing the horse-race narrative over real reporting for just as long. And when they do discuss policy, as The Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins observed, in a typically smart piece, they are likely to prefer the windy, absurd generalities of a Trump to the wonky policies of a Clinton. It makes better copy, and it has the added benefit that it doesn’t require any fact-checking.
Trump is the fullest flower of a non-political politics and the fullest product of the Winchell Effect. With their mutual lack of interest in the truth, Trump and the MSM deserve one another—a synergy of the showman and the gossip columnists. But do we deserve them? Only if we allow our politics to become a way of amusing ourselves rather than the way to select a leader.
Meanwhile, Trump and the MSM will keep the misinformation coming, on the sadly correct assumption that many of us don’t really care about facts so long as we are being titillated.
This post was first published on BillMoyers.com.
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.