Public radio normalizes Trump’s misleading response to deadly train crash

This is how the media normalizes the abnormal.

Cars from an Amtrak train lay spilled onto Interstate 5 below alongside smashed vehicles as some train cars remain on the tracks above on Monday in DuPont, Washington. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Cars from an Amtrak train lay spilled onto Interstate 5 below alongside smashed vehicles as some train cars remain on the tracks above on Monday in DuPont, Washington. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

During a mid-afternoon news hit on Monday, a Minnesota Public Radio host tried to inform listeners about President Trump’s response to the deadly Amtrak train derailment south of Seattle.

“President Trump saying today he is offering his thoughts and prayers for those involved in a derailment in Washington state,” the MPR host said. “The president thanked the first responders at the scene and said the White House is monitoring the situation. His thoughts came in a tweet Monday about the derailment that officials say killed at least six people.”

But there’s just one problem — Trump’s response was nowhere near as measured and “presidential” as MPR would have its listeners believe.


Trump’s initial response to the derailment was not in fact to offer “thoughts and prayers,” but to shamelessly politicize the tragedy. At 1:41 p.m. Eastern Time, Trump tweeted that the derailment “shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

But there’s no evidence that the derailment was a result of train infrastructure that is in a state of “crumble.” Instead, early reports indicate the train “was making its first run as part of a higher speed service that local authorities had warned could be dangerous.”

While Trump postures as though he has solutions for disasters like the one that happened on Monday in Washington state, the opposite is true. The budget Trump proposed earlier this year included drastic cuts to Amtrak, including a $928 million cut in transit construction grants and a $630 million cut in subsidies for long-distance Amtrak routes.


Asked by the Washington Post to respond to Trump’s budget proposal, Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said, “I’m just looking at the smoking wreckage.”

Erroneous, knee-jerk responses to tragedies are typical for Trump. Dating back to his presidential campaign, Trump has repeatedly shown a willingness to use deadly acts of violence to further his political ends, sometimes with the help of bogus information.

But MPR didn’t inform its listeners about these aspects of Trump’s response. Instead, they selectively reported on a second, more anodyne tweet Trump posted 10 minutes after the first one about Monday’s derailment, then used that tweet to cast the president in the most “presidential” light possible.

The disconnect between MPR’s coverage and Trump’s actual response to the derailment was detailed in a Twitter thread by David M. Perry, a columnist at Pacific Standard.

MPR, of course, is far from the first outlet to go out of its way to normalize Trump’s ourbursts. In September, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver detailed how the New York Times repeatedly covered Trump’s attacks on minorities and women as though they are a deliberate political tactic.


“We often hear theories like this after Trump does or says something controversial or outrageous,” Silver wrote. “His response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August was sometimes explained in this way, for example. ‘Mr. Trump has always appreciated the emotional pull of questioning bias and fairness, especially with his white working-class base,’ the Times wrote, portraying Charlottesville as an issue that drove a wedge between the Trumpian and the Republican establishment.”

That same month, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote an explainer detailing why he thinks journalists are tempted to “normalize” a president who lies relentlessly and regularly spreads disinformation.

If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that.

This is “normalization.” This is what “tonight he became president” is about. This is why he’s called “transactional,” why a turn to bipartisanship is right now being test-marketed by headline writers. This is why “deal-making” is said to be afoot when there is barely any evidence of a deal.

Seemingly anticipating coverage like MPR’s regarding Trump’s response to the derailment, Rosen concluded his piece by writing, “What they have to report brings ruin to what they have to respect. So they occasionally revise it into something they can respect: at least a little.”