Too dangerous to disregard

By Janine Zacharia | Feb. 7, 2021

It wasn’t until the final days of his presidency that the media finally began to figure out how to cover the provocateur Donald Trump, calling his lies “lies” and cutting away when he complained without evidence about the election being rigged.

Now, journalists face a fresh challenge in Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Trumpiest — but far from the only — new member of Congress to spew dangerous hatred and falsehoods.

That the freshman representative from northwest Georgia supported a Facebook post that House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi should be shot in the head and her belief that mass shootings were false flag operations — plus her nutty notion that some kind of Jewish-backed space laser caused California’s wildfires — have in a month generated more coverage than most politicians will generate in a lifetime.

Newly elected Lauren Boebert of Colorado has also expressed support for the baseless QAnon theory, promised to carry her Glock into Congress, was fined for setting off the metal detector, and is being investigated for her possible role in coordinating the mob that ransacked the Capitol. Madison Cawthorn, the 25-year-old newly elected representative from North Carolina, has parroted the false conspiracy about thousands of children being sold into sex slavery and encouraged people last December to “lightly threaten”members of Congress.

There have, of course, long been legislators with anti-Semitic, racist and crazy beliefs.

But whereas recent ones like Iowa Republican Steve King — who was stripped of his committee assignments before being ousted — were marginalized, Greene, Boebert and Cawthorn feel like a bellwether of a deranged Republican Party increasingly willing to propagate insane notions for political gain. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s move to obstruct certification of President Biden’s victory led to his biggest fundraising month ever. In today’s politics, outrageousness to the point of recklessness is being rewarded.

Should reporters relentlessly cover Greene’s “loony lies,” as Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell described them? Or, in doing so, does the media risk exposing more Americans to conspiracies? Would it be better to ignore media-manipulators like Boebert who are too junior to have real impact in Congress?

“I am generally unsure what the best way to handle MTG is now that she’s a lawmaker,” Charlie Warzel, a New York Times technology reporter, wrote on Twitter referring to Greene by her initials. She is “clearly an attention hijacker … more shitposter than politician … but also … a Rep.”

We can’t worry any longer about inadvertently directing people to conspiracies by writing about Greene and her ilk now that the Department of Homeland Security has declared “ideologically motivated violent extremists … fueled by false narratives” a terrorist threat. Congressmembers who spread these falsehoods are not only a political story — they are a national security one, too.

In an email accompanying a petition for her expulsion, the Jewish advocacy group J Street summed up how I think about this: “It would be a huge mistake to ignore the serious threat posed by Greene and the far-right antisemitic conspiracy theorists to whom she is now proudly giving voice in the halls of Congress.”

When I reached out to John Bailey, editor of the Rome News-Tribune, the main newspaper in Greene’s home district, to get his take on how the media should cover Greene, he said he wrestles with how to write about conspiracists without amplifying false messages.

He doesn’t have a lot of time to think through a strategy for covering her in between processing photos and managing coverage. It’s a day-to-day decision.

“You have to make a call,” he says, especially without a dedicated politics reporter and a staff of only five that needs to cover school boards and local government and sports, too. “What’s more important?” he asks.

Reporters need a plan. This is why my colleague Andy Grotto and I drafted guidelines for newsrooms on how to report on lies.

Greene will never merit as much attention as a president. Media outlets both national and local need to signal in story placement and length that she isn’t the most important story of the day.

Editors should develop stock language about Greene that is included high up in every story such as, “Marjorie Taylor Greene, the freshman representative, who has endorsed executing prominent Democrats and backed the QAnon movement — now deemed a terrorist threat by the FBI — before saying she no longer believed it … ”

(In an attempt to prevent the U.S. House from stripping her of her committee assignments, Greene said in a speech Thursday she had stopped believing in QAnon and that some of her “words of the past” don’t represent her today, before calling the media “just as guilty as QAnon of presenting truth and lies.” The House then voted 230-199 to remove her from the education and budget committees.)

Never write a headline that directly quotes her without context.

As Grotto and I wrote, “remember that journalists are a targeted adversary and see yourself this way when digesting disinformation … Ask yourself: Are we being used here?”

Rather than covering publicity stunts, reporters should dig further into who Greene and other representatives pushing QAnon really are. The Nation’s investigation into the deceits of Cawthorn — a Trumpy freshman member who “misled the public about training for the Paralympics, just as he misrepresented his education and business history” — was a model.

A 2019 video of Greene harassing David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland high school shooting, was chilling and important.

Media Matters’ publication of Greene’s 2018 Facebook posts — in which she endorsed the idea that 9/11 was an inside job and that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was staged — was the kind of reporting that should have been done before the election.

Too often, Republicans were able to duck questions about Trump’s inanities. They cannot be allowed to do this again.

A journalist’s job is to report what people need to know to be informed citizens and to help them make sense of what is most important. To that end, I wish every column devoted to her — including this one — could instead be about the existential threat of climate change. But, unfortunately, the media is going to have to rigorously cover legislators like Greene. They are simply too dangerous to disregard.