George Lakoff: 'The media is not doing its job'

Posted November 9, 2018 9:01 p.m. EST

— George Lakoff has a warning for the national news media: Don't adopt President Trump's distorted framing of events.

Lakoff is a well-known linguist and a staunch critic of Trump. On this week's "Reliable Sources" podcast, he urged reporters to not just repeat or fact-check what the president says about topics like traveling migrants. Instead, he said, they should come up with new framings that put facts front and center.

"Reporters are trained to adopt the language of the people they're reporting on. And in this case you have to not do that. You have to resist it," Lakoff told Brian Stelter. "You have to ask what is the truth and tell the truth," he said.

Lakoff is professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Don't Think of an Elephant!"

He has previously written about how Trump turns "words into weapons" and has urged journalists to state facts first; then share Trump's falsehoods; then repeat the facts again. A "truth sandwich," so to speak.

Listen to the whole podcast here:

In this week's conversation with Stelter, he highlighted Trump's pre-midterm election fear-mongering about Central American migrants making their way through Mexico. Trump succeeded in getting many members of the media to adopt his framing, Lakoff said.

Coverage of the so-called "caravan" helped spread Trump's anti-immigrant messages, including the bogus notion of an "invasion," Lakoff said. "This is anything but an invading army," he said. "This is a bunch of people who are trying to escape from violence and poverty in their countries."

Lakoff refers to Trump's thought processes and the way he speaks as his "tropes." An example: On Wednesday, Trump accused PBS's Yamiche Alcindor of asking a "racist question" after she asked him about the widespread concern that his rhetoric emboldens white nationalists.

"When he's accused of something, he turns the same accusation on the accuser," Lakoff said.

Stelter observed that it's a version of the childhood rhyme "I know you are, but what am I?"

Lakoff said the news media needs to point out these tropes when they occur. The tropes are unconscious, and the press needs to "make the unconscious conscious," he said.

Lakoff also reacted to the Trump White House's suspension of CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta's press pass.

"He's essentially saying to the press, 'I have control over your income, I have control over, you know, how you earn your living. And I can take it away whenever I want. And you had better be nice to me," Lakoff said.

He said journalists should not repeat emotionally charged phrases like "fake news." The more it is repeated, the more it sinks into the heads of those who are listening, Lakoff said.

Journalists should say "we are responsible reporters, reporting the truth," he said. "We are doing our job and we are doing it well. And in doing so we are serving the American people."

It's more important than just stating an occupation, he said. By emphasizing the public service role, "you're getting patriotism on your side," he said. "This is what the freedom of the press is about. This is why we have freedom of the press in this country."