Reuters has a story from Saturday afternoon, “Trump reframes claim that Muslims cheered 9/11.” This is how they report it:
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Saturday reframed his claim that he saw Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey, cheering the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 by asserting the sentiment was shared worldwide.
“Worldwide, the Muslims were absolutely going wild,” the real estate mogul said at a campaign rally in Sarasota, Florida.
That wouldn’t be a “reframe.” It would be a wholesale concession.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports it this way:
Trump also doubled down on his initial claim. “I talked about Muslims celebrating in New Jersey. And everyone knows it’s true … people saw. So I made that statement. I didn’t think it was a big deal because I thought everybody knew, adding that “everybody admits worldwide, Muslims were absolutely going wild” over the events of Sept. 11. He later criticized “Barack Hussein Obama” for the administration’s response to terrorist attacks.
“Reframe” or “doubling down”? Well, Trump had originally said that he saw the celebrations:
VIDEO CLIP OF DONALD TRUMP, IN WHICH HE SAYS:“Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
STEPHANOPOULOS:“You know, the police say that didn’t happen and all those rumors have been on the Internet for some time. So did you misspeak yesterday?”
TRUMP: “It did happen. I saw it.”
Asked whether he saw them, he changes his story in mid-stride:
STEPHANOPOULOS:“You saw that…”
TRUMP:It was on television. I saw it.
STEPHANOPOULOS:“…with your own eyes?”
TRUMP: “George, it did happen.”
So the new story is not that Trump saw the celebration either with his own eyes, or on TV, but that “people” saw it. That’s not a “reframe.” It’s a liar telling a new lie to get out of the last one he told because he never managed to get his story straight in the first place.
Trump is on record as saying that the celebration story was “well covered at the time.” But with just a few exceptions, almost all of that coverage denied that there were celebrations. The few exceptions were a couple of right wing outlets (The New York Post, City Journal), a stray sentence here or there in the mainstream press (e.g., the Kovaleski-Kunkle article in The Washington Post), and then “shock jock” radio reporting of the sort associated with the old Scott Shannon/Todd Pettingill radio show on WPLJ-FM. But the mainstream media almost unanimously rejected the veracity of the rumors. This fact is too obvious to require demonstration. If you doubt it, trawl through back issues of the Herald News, Bergen Record, Star Ledger, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. When you find the celebration rumors mentioned, you’ll find their veracity denied.*
So, barring psychosis or brazen dishonesty, there is simply no way to claim, as Trump does here, that the veracity of the celebration rumor was ubiquitously taken as uncontroversial. That claim is even more deranged than Trump’s original claim that thousands of people were celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City. It’s an Orwellian attempt to claim that everyone has always agreed that thousands of Muslims were celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City!
Given this, the Reuters reporting involves a subtle whitewashing of Trump’s deceptions. In abbreviating the direct quotation and describing it as a “reframe,” Reuters gives the impression that Trump merely confused the celebrations in East Jerusalem with celebrations he thought were taking place in Jersey City, so that what he’s now doing is merely backpedaling, i.e., claiming that he’d really been referring to the East Jerusalem celebrations the whole time. That would be dishonest enough, but as The Washington Post coverage makes clear, it’s not in fact what Trump is doing. What he’s doing is backpedaling while pedaling forward: he’s covering the old lie both by bringing up the celebrations in other countries, and by asserting that everyone knew that celebrations had taken place in Jersey City.
Now take a look at the actual footage of Trump’s Sarasota speech. He rambles a lot, but finally gets to the issue under discussion around minute 7 or so.
There is no “reframe” here at all except that celebrations in “Jersey City” have now become celebrations in unspecified “parts of New Jersey,” and the controversy over their occurrence has now miraculously disappeared under a storm of eleventh-hour tweets to Trump’s Twitter feed.
The Kasich camp has now released a video critical of Trump. The presentation is a bit melodramatic, and the Nazi allusion is a little over the top, but in some ways it’s quite appropriate, and something that Trump richly deserves.
There are reports out there that Trump’s popularity has fallen significantly this week. Opinion polls are about as reliable an indicator of the future as tea leaves or burnt offerings, but it would be nice to think that this is the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s bid for the White House.
Postscript, 10:16 pm: Oh well, time to “reframe” that “reframe.” Trump just comes out and tells us that there was no “reframing” at all. He meant exactly what he said:
“I have a very good memory, Chuck. I’ll tell you, I have a very good memory. I saw it somewhere on television many years ago and I never forgot it — and it was on television, too,” Trump said.
The real estate mogul claimed he’s heard reports of the celebrations in different New Jersey cities. He said his staff is looking for clips of television reports from the time that will prove his claim.
If he has such a great memory, why can’t he remember where he saw it, or when? Or what he saw? Or where exactly it took place? Or what channel it was on? And what does he plan to say if they don’t find anything?
“I’ve heard Jersey City. I’ve heard Paterson. It was 14 years ago,” Trump said. “But I saw it on television, I saw clips, and so did many other people — and many people saw it in person. I’ve had hundreds of phone calls to the Trump organization saying, ‘We saw it. There was dancing in the streets.’ “
Let’s not get distracted, Donald. The question is not what he’s hearing now, but what he saw then. Wouldn’t an honest person interested in the truth have first found the clips, and then made accusations?
But here is the real underlying agenda:
On Tuesday, Trump’s chief counsel, Michael Cohen, stood by the comments, even as he was pressed by CNN’s Chris Cuomo on the fact that there’s no evidence to back up the claims and that accuracy matters in a presidential race.
“He’s probably right,” Cohen said of Trump on “New Day.” “There’s no way to say that it wasn’t.”
Cohen said the argument over the number of people celebrating is misplaced, and that Trump was making a broader point about enemies within the United States.
“Whether it’s thousands and thousands or 1,000 people or even just 1 person, it’s irrelevant. To celebrate this tragedy … it’s wrong,” Cohen said. “What the exact number is, I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s relevant. What’s important is that there are bad people among us.”
So here’s the million-dollar recipe: (1) Start with an ad ignorantium fallacy. (2) Then backpedal on your client’s claim while your client is doubling down on the maximal version of the same claim. (3) Relying on (2), commit an ignoratio elenchi. (4) End by stoking the prejudices of your audience.
I grew up as a teenager listening to this song, regarding it as a bit hyperbolic and ultimately inapplicable to the country I lived in. We live and learn: it’s on its way to becoming the soundtrack of American political life.
*Postscript, Nov. 30, 2015: Politico has a useful list of articles derived from a Lexis-Nexis search for the dates Sept. 11-Dec. 31, 2001. I agree with the conclusion they draw: “…there is no conclusive evidence that any New Jersey residents celebrated the attacks, and there is no evidence whatsoever of any demonstrations where ‘thousands and thousands of people’ cheered.”
But contrary to what they say, their “search of newspaper and television transcripts” is not “exhaustive” (in any case, their list is not; perhaps their search went beyond the items in the list). Their list doesn’t include reporting from the Herald News (e.g., by Hilary Burke), and doesn’t include all of the reporting done by the Bergen Record (e.g., reporting by John Chadwick and by Nicole Gaudiano, as well as statements by Robert Grant, the Paterson city spokesman). It also misses the items that Gary Alan Fine and I cited in our 2005 paper from The Wall Street Journal, Orlando Sentinel, New York Post, and City Journal, and omits most of the reporting, print and television, of the “five dancing Israelis” rumor. It misses the MTV show recently uncovered by The Washington Post. Finally, it misses the fact that the rumors were repeated by Daniel Pipes in his book Militant Islam Reaches America, and were debated online by Pipes and me in 2004 at the History News Network’s website. (Granted, the latter debate is outside of their search parameters, but Pipes used the occasion to spread more rumors.) I’ll try to discuss some of this material in forthcoming posts.
Here’s a short list, not intended to be exhaustive:
- Hilary Burke, “Nobody in City Celebrated, Officials Report,” Herald News (Sept. 15, 2001), p. A4.
- Christopher Callahan, “Anatomy of an Urban Legend,” American Journalism Review (November 2001).
- John Chadwick, “Battling Rumors and Hatred,” Bergen Record (Sept. 13, 2001), p. A8.
- Anthony Colarossi, “Critics: Radio Shows Fuel Hate,” Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 14, 2001), p. D1.
- Nicole Gaudiano, “Scares, Hoaxes and False Alarms,” Bergen Record, (Sept. 14, 2001), p. A19.
- Robert Grant, “Yelling Fire in a Packed Theater,” Bergen Record (Oct. 1, 2001), p. I6.
- Drew Limsky, “America’s Course: Of War,” Los Angeles Times (Sept. 23, 2001), p. M2.
- Heather Mac Donald, “Keeping America Safe from Terrorism,” City Journal (Autumn 2001), and letter exchange with me.
- Joanne Palmer, ” ‘Protocols’ of Paterson: Scholar Discusses American Muslim Anti-Semitism,” The Jewish Standard (now The New Jersey Jewish Standard), Dec. 20, 2002.
- Daniel Pipes, “Fighting Militant Islam without Bias,” City Journal (Autumn 2001), reprinted in Militant Islam Reaches America.
- Fred Siegel, “Radical Islam at War with America,” New York Post (Sept. 14, 2001).
- Jeffrey Zaslow, “Arab’s Restaurant Is Nearly Ruined by Rumor of Celebration on Sept. 11,” Wall Street Journal (March 13, 2002), p. A1.