Another Trump Narrative Collapses: Why the Media Jumps to Conclusions

When law enforcement cleared protesters from Lafayette Square last year, left-leaning media outlets immediately ran with the narrative that President Donald Trump had ordered the move so he could get a photo-op in front of nearby St. John’s Church.

But a new inspector general’s report reveals the truth: Trump had nothing to do with the police action.

Tim Murtaugh, who was communications director for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, views this episode—as well as numerous other Trump-related stories that the media has had to retract—as one of the dangers of what he calls “pack journalism.”

“No single reporter wants to be the only one going out and saying, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t what everybody thinks it is,’” Murtaugh says. “So everybody stays in the same pack, they all report it the same way. And what do you know, almost every single time you’ve got all the media on one side, Donald Trump on the other side, and very often, those things fall apart.”

Murtaugh joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss media malfeasance in reporting on Trump, why so-called mainstream outlets run cover for the radical left, and what conservatives can do to make sure they can find honest and high-quality news.

We also cover these stories:

  • The Supreme Court rules 9-9 that Catholic Social Services may keep putting children into foster homes in accord with its religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
  • In another decision, the high court votes 7-2 to uphold the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.
  • The federal government will observe Juneteenth on Friday, as the observance becomes a national holiday celebrating the end of slavery in America.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Douglas Blair: My guest today is Tim Murtaugh, who served as director of communications for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and who currently is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation as well as a Daily Signal contributor. Welcome to the show, Tim.

Tim Murtaugh: Thank you very much, Doug. Good to be with you again.

Blair: Tim, thanks so much for being here. I’d like to start out with the recent inspector general report that basically destroyed the Trump Lafayette [Square] narrative. The initial reporting of the incident basically portrayed the president as forcing protesters out of the park to get a photo-op in front of the church. Could you give our audience a short breakdown of what actually happened and why you think the media was so quick to push the initial anti-Trump narrative?

Murtaugh: Well, what actually happened, which we now know definitively from the U.S. Park Police, is that they already had plans underway to clear the park, where, as you recall, there had been a fire at St. John’s Church the night before, and they were clearing the park of protesters so that a contractor could put up an anti-scaling fence there in Lafayette [Square].

And so that plan was already underway hours before they learned that it was likely that President Trump would be walking through the park from the White House on his way to St. John’s Church, where he was going to commemorate the fire and the vandalism that had occurred the night before and send the message that he as president was not going to tolerate lawlessness, particularly in the United States capital city, but in any city in America, where you remember at that time, there were riots running and cities burning all across the country.

So that sequence of events happened. The park was cleared, the president walked through, and he had his moment over there at St. John’s Church.

Now, the media jumped to conclusions and they all decided all at once that the park had been cleared because the president was walking through. We now know that’s not what happened.

The park was being cleared anyway, but because it involved President Donald J. Trump and because the entirety of the mainstream news media hated him, they linked that sequence of events together and it took hold as a narrative that was completely unshakable. It was accepted as fact that the park had been cleared for the purpose of letting the president through.

We now know that didn’t happen, and we even saw an NBC reporter have to admit publicly the narrative we thought we knew was not the reality. And sadly, we’ve seen a lot of well-believed media narratives, particularly as they pertain to President Trump, fall apart in recent days. And these are the perils of pack journalism.

No single reporter wants to be the only one going out and saying, “Hey, maybe this isn’t what everybody thinks it is.” So everybody stays in the same pack, they all report it the same way, and what do you know, almost every single time you’ve got all the media on one side, Donald Trump on the other side, and very often, those things fall apart.

Blair: Absolutely. And on that note, President Trump actually made a statement recently that read, “Have you noticed that they are now admitting I was right about everything they lied about before the election?”

He cited things like the coronavirus and the Chinese lab theory, the border crisis, getting vaccine doses done in record time, all of these things that the media reported as either untrue or exaggerated or something like a conspiracy theory that then they had to go back and say, “Well, that’s not the whole story.

How do these “mistakes,” and I’m putting mistakes in quotes here, how do these “mistakes” in reporting keep happening? It seems like it’s something we hear about every day.

Murtaugh: Yeah, well, I mean, just as I mentioned that a minute ago, it’s pack journalism and no one wants to be the one who breaks away from the pack.

Let’s take the lab leak theory, for example. For an entire year, if you said out loud that, “Hey, maybe it’s possible that the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. I mean, it’s pretty remarkably coincidental that there’s a lab studying these things right there in the same city where the outbreak originated, huh?” If you said, “Hey, maybe that’s possible,” you were just absolutely hounded into silence. You were called a fringe conspiracy theorist, a loon, and even a racist because it involved China.

Now, a year later that Donald Trump is now no longer in the White House, none of the underlying facts have changed. Nothing in the data has changed. What has changed is Donald Trump is not in the White House anymore and so the news media is now free to consider competing ideas, which they did not do before.

And again, if you were a member of the mainstream White House press corps and you went out there and wrote a story that said, “Maybe this is possible,” you would have been treated like an outcast, and no single reporter wants to be the one to do that. They all know what their competitors are working on.

If you watch the nightly news on any of the networks, or if you watch CNN or MSNBC, or read The New York Times or The Washington Post, they all report the same stories in pretty much the same exact ways. No one wants to stray, and almost all of the time, it was the entirety of the press corps ganged up against Donald J. Trump.

Just look at the Russia bounties story, which I think was on the list of things that the former president mentioned. This was intelligence leaked to The New York Times that Russia was paying bounty to the Taliban in exchange for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan, a really shocking story based on, of course, anonymous sources allegedly from the American intelligence community.

The Trump White House at the time said, “Listen, these threads of intelligence are not vetted, they’re not confirmed, and they certainly don’t rise to the level of something that we’re going to brief the president about because they are not in fact confirmed.”

Well, that didn’t stop the entirety of the press corps from going nuts and demanding to know why hasn’t the president acted to protect our troops when the Russians are paying the Taliban to kill our American troops. Joe Biden’s campaign pounced on that and said that it was a complete dereliction of duty and it was one of our most sacred responsibilities to take care of our troops.

So it became a gigantic campaign issue for a long time during the campaign. And now we have members of the intelligence community in communication with the White House, and the White House issuing a statement saying that they have low to moderate confidence that that story was ever true.

And guess which White House that is? It wasn’t the Trump White House, it was the Biden White House that confirms what the Trump White House had said all along, that these things are not confirmed, but that didn’t stop the national news media from running with it, handing Joe Biden a very shocking campaign issue, and it consumed a lot of oxygen there for about a month of the campaign.

Blair: Given that we have all of these incidents like, again, we were talking about the Russian bounties story, what do you think is the most egregious example of media bias during the Biden presidency? Has anything sort of in particular stuck out to you as particularly egregious?

Murtaugh: I think allowing Joe Biden and not really asking, as they say, asking questions of power or speaking truth to power. To allow Joe Biden to get away with claiming credit for the vaccines that have brought the COVID outbreak and the pandemic under control here in this country. The guy has only been president for under five months, are we led to believe that he is the one who stopped the pandemic? Of course not.

What has stopped the pandemic and cut the death rate and really dramatically decreased the number of cases, the fact that it is no longer spreading as it once was, that even California has now opened up its economy again and eliminated the restrictions, that is all due to the vaccine.

Under President Trump and under Operation Warp Speed, multiple vaccines were brought to market and put into use in record time.

All of the news media—The New York Times, CNN, ABC, NBC—they all said it was impossible. And at the same time, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris during the campaign sought to sow doubt in the veracity of the vaccine, the effectiveness of the vaccine, actually saying, “Hey, if Donald Trump came out with a vaccine, I’d think twice before injecting it into my arm,” trying to make people doubt whether the vaccine would work or not. And in fact, it all occurred because the president removed mountains and mountains of red tape and got these things to market faster.

There is no way on Earth that Joe Biden would have cleared away all of the government hurdles that allowed these vaccines to get through. And the fact that the national news media does not hold Joe Biden accountable and give Donald Trump credit for what is saving millions and millions and millions of American lives, and indeed lives around the world because we’re now sharing the vaccines with other countries around the world, the fact that the news media won’t clearly state, “Hey, Joe Biden shouldn’t be taking credit for this because he criticized it, he cast doubt on it, and there’s no way that he would have done it had he been president at the time.”

Blair: Absolutely. And it seems as if in the case of the mainstream media and sort of large-scale media organizations, it’s not just media bias toward the Biden presidency or toward the left. It also seems like stories that make the left look bad or make people that they agree with look bad kind of get squished by these outlets.

The story about Hunter Biden using a racial slur in texts with his lawyer really didn’t get that much coverage from sort of the mainstream outlets like The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC. What does it mean for American discourse when the media really will only cover one side of an issue and they’ll refuse to cover the other side?

Murtaugh: Well, it means that there is no discourse really. I mean, let’s take the case of these Hunter Biden texts in which he uses the N-word very, very casually and cavalierly in talking to his lawyer, who, by the way, is white and Hunter is still throwing that word around.

Let’s remember that The New York Times—which has not, to my knowledge, written a single word about these Hunter Biden texts—not very long ago, they had a story on their front page about a high school cheerleader who used the same word.

So somehow, a high school student somewhere in this country was front-page news for The New York Times because she used the N-word, but Hunter Biden, the son of the president of the United States, is not. It’s a complete and total abdication of what it is to have any kind of news judgment where a high school student is front-page material, but the son of the president is not.

And that takes us back to a Hunter Biden’s laptop, which the news media, once again, was unanimous in its derision and saying, “This is not news. And in fact, it might be Russian disinformation.” There’s the old safeguard. You can go back to that if you want to if you’re the media.

But what the laptop and its contents now show is what we were saying on the campaign all along, that this is not an issue of—and I know everybody always says, “Oh, well, Hunter Biden, he’s not president, so what do we care about that?” No, but his father is, and his father was the vice president at the time that a lot of these things were happening that we now know to be true from the contents of Hunter’s laptop.

For example, Hunter set up, and his father, the vice president of the United States, attended a dinner with some of Hunter’s foreign business contacts. And this was at a time when Joe Biden was in charge of Ukraine policy on behalf of the United States and there he is meeting with some of Hunter’s foreign business associates. At the same time, Joe Biden has said repeatedly, “I have no knowledge of any of the business dealings of my son. We have never discussed it.”

So what exactly did they talk about at dinner with his foreign business contacts and his son Hunter? Did Joe think that they were there because he’s such a sparkling conversationalist? I don’t think that could possibly be the case if you’ve ever seen him perform in public. And somehow, none of the news media thought that that was newsworthy, and they still don’t today.

Now, just imagine, I hate to play the “what if” game, but imagine if it had been Donald Trump Jr. bringing people from a foreign country to dinner in Washington and having dinner with his father while his father was in office.

What do you suppose the reaction would be from the mainstream press corps? There’d be immediate talk of impeachment, immediate. But when it’s Joe Biden and his son, no one cares.

Blair: It definitely seems like these media outlets are sort of creating a bubble and an echo chamber for people to kind of reflect and say, “Oh, well, everything’s hunky-dory on my side of the aisle, but those bad guys on the other side of the aisle, oh, they’re the bad guys.” That’s the problem here.

So if we’re aware that these media outlets are creating echo chambers for people, how do Americans even find the truth? Where do we go?

Murtaugh: Well, you have to find other outlets and other sources for that material. I mean, The Heritage Foundation and The Daily Signal are two of the very best places that you can go because these are stories that are being written for The Daily Signal that you’re not going to find in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

And in fact, I think in many cases, it would be considered better journalism because the writers are actually willing to consider other opinions or other explanations for things that are in current events.

… Remember an editor had to resign from The New York Times because he dared print an op-ed from a United States senator, Tom Cotton? They printed an op-ed from a U.S. senator and there was a newsroom revolt and the editor lost his job over it. That’s absurd, that’s absurd.

For people who say that their reason for living is the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas, they shut down any thought that opposes theirs.

I know that there’s a great drive to promote diversity in newsrooms, and what they mean by that, they mean gender diversity and they mean racial diversity. And those are fine and admirable goals, but there is no diversity of thought in American newsrooms by and large.

And so I think you have to find out places where you can find those diverging points of view. And I’m not saying this just because I’m here on your podcast, but The Daily Signal is a great place to find those things. There are other conservative outlets where you can find good reporting as well, but The Daily Signal I think is chief among them.

Blair: Well, we do appreciate the high praise for The Daily Signal here. In terms of creating that diversity of thought, I’m curious, do you think it’s something as simple as saying, “Let’s have The New York Times hire more conservatives,” or, “Let’s have CNN bring on some Republican correspondents”? Is that the solution here or is there a more in-depth, ingrained solution that we need to start pushing toward?

Murtaugh: I think that’s fine to say, “Let’s hire more conservatives,” whether it’s The Washington Post or CNN or The New York Times or whoever, but those voices have to be able to be free, to be their own voices.

I mean, if you’re a conservative on CNN, you’re only there because you’re going to bash other conservatives. That’s the only reason why they want you. If you’re in The New York Times, I question how much freedom you would have to actually express your own opinions. Or if you’re not on the opinion side, if you are a regular news reporter, are you going to be free to pursue story ideas that are contrary to what the clear liberals at the editor’s desk believe? I don’t know that to be the case.

So getting people on the payroll and with bylines and with face time on TV would be great. The question is, are they going to be free to be able to pursue stories and opinion pieces that the editors would actually let through the gates? I don’t know.

Blair: That’s an excellent point and something to think about. We are running a little bit out of time, Tim, so I wanted to leave you a little bit of time to kind of take our listeners out. What would you like our listeners to take away from this interview if they took away one thing? And then, as a follow-up to that, what can we as conservatives do to hold the media accountable?

Murtaugh: First, I want to say a lot of these reporters and these outlets, the reporters that work at these outlets, I know a great many of them, in fact, if not most of them, and I like them individually. I think I consider a lot of them friends.

I think that many times they understand that they are stuck in pack journalism, that there is not the opportunity to go out and report things that everybody else is not reporting because it’s just not acceptable. You can’t get outside what the narrative is. It’s, frankly, not permitted.

So I would caution people against directing any particular venom at any individual reporters and understand that it is a system that is really, I think, broken because it’s supposed to be journalism and it’s not. It’s not.

Journalism should tolerate a free exchange of ideas, and the current [system] we have in place and the power structure that is involved with so-called big journalism does not permit that kind of stuff.

So, what people can do is to turn away from those outlets from time to time, or at least not use them as their only source of information. And I suspect if people are listening to this podcast, they’re already doing those things.

But check out other stories, check out other conservative websites. Find out what different points of view are on the same subject matter, and I think people will have a lot more well-rounded view of what is actually happening in this country.

Blair: Very great advice. That was Tim Murtaugh, former director of communications for the Trump reelection campaign, Heritage Foundation visiting fellow and Daily Signal contributor. Thanks for your time, Tim.

Murtaugh: Thank you, Doug.

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