On Thursday, when images surfaced of Melania Trump wearing a Zara jacket featuring the words "I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?" en route to a Texas migrant detention center, members of the press immediately began reporting on the jacket, calling it "tone-deaf", "inappropriate", and worse, a declaration that she truly doesn't care about the plight of families being ripped apart by deportation and bans.
The media's coverage of the jacket was met with strong criticism from FLOTUS Director of Communications, Stephanie Grisham, who claimed reporters were improperly focusing on the jacket instead of the migrant children. Yesterday, Grisham tweeted, "Today’s visit w the children in Texas impacted @flotus greatly. If media would spend their time & energy on her actions & efforts to help kids - rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe - we could get so much accomplished on behalf of children. #SheCares #ItsJustAJacket."
In the hours following Grisham's response, journalist Liz Plank shared a powerful message, calling the jacket a publicity stunt made by the Trump administration to bait journalists into appearing unconcerned with migrant children. Her lengthy Instagram response focused on the administration's alleged plan to discredit the media, and distract audiences from the horrors taking place at migrant centers. As an outspoken critic of Trump's administration in the past — so much so that she was blocked from Donald Trump's Twitter — Plank's message garnered a lot of support and, once again, brought up the issue of how media should responsibly report on the Trump administration.
Teen Vogue interviewed Liz Plank about the media's response to Melania's jacket and how the media can effectively work to combat the Trump administration.
Teen Vogue What compelled you to speak out about this jacket situation and how it relates to delegitimizing the press?
Liz Plank: When I first saw a photo of the jacket, it was through a tweet from Jim Acosta, a reporter I really respect who is doing incredible work at CNN. I was aghast. As I was preparing to join the chorus of voices who were disgusted and outraged, I kept rereading the FLOTUS spokesperson's response, where she specifically states "I hope the media isn't going to choose to focus on her wardrobe" and something just didn't sit right. I kept staring at it and, suddenly, [it] just clicked. I looked away from my phone to my computer screen and saw Melania Trump was trending on Twitter and whispered to myself: It worked. They did this on purpose. They want us to cover the jacket so that they can blame the media for covering the jacket and call us fake news. This keeps Trump's base enraged at the media and mistrusting of us.
Their strategy creates a circus where propaganda networks like Fox News can roll the clips and tweets from reporters being critical of FLOTUS's choice of clothing to confirm to their viewers that the media cannot be trusted and that they don't focus on what the American people really care about. I definitely felt that either I was going crazy or people would call me crazy, and frankly, I almost didn't even post the tweet. But I'd spent the last few days being so shocked by the use of propaganda strategies from the government to lie about their human rights abuses at the border that I threw away all the norms we expect from a government and, suddenly, it all made perfect sense. Then, like clockwork, FLOTUS's spokesperson tweeted about how outrageous it was that the media was focusing on the jacket. [The tweet] even included a hashtag for the jacket! Once I saw the reaction from FLOTUS's office, I knew I wasn't the one going crazy; they're the ones going crazy.
TV: Can you elaborate further on why you believe Melania Trump chose to wear that jacket for this particular visit?
LP: There is no doubt in my mind that the choice to wear the jacket was a conscious and deliberate choice. Everything the first lady wears is thought-out and carefully strategized. Who knows if it was her decision or not to wear it, but someone made that decision on purpose. It's 100% bait for the media. And the FLOTUS office saying they're confused about why the media is covering the jacket is gaslighting 101. Putting a jacket that states "I don't care, do you?" on the first lady while she is visiting traumatized and abused children at the border is the equivalent of waving a steak in a cage full of lions and acting confused when it gets devoured.
TV: If the message on the jacket really was directed at “fake news” media outlets, like Donald Trump explained in his tweet, what kind of impression do you think that could leave on media consumers?
LP: I unfortunately can't see the tweet you're referencing because I'm still blocked by Donald Trump on Twitter, which means that, as a member of the media, I am blocked from being able to view his tweets, which are considered official statements. From the very moment Donald Trump announced his campaign, he has been at war with what he calls "fake news," which is just another word for the media. He has called us the enemy of the state and continues to try and delegitimize us with tactics that are extremely explicit. From blocking journalists on Twitter to throwing reporters like Jorge Ramos out of his press conferences, he has made his attempts to discredit the media very clear. In fact, the only news channel he doesn't call fake news is what would be defined by any measure to be a government propaganda network. Just today The Daily Show published a video showing the similarities with the texts read on teleprompters by anchors in North Korea with the ones being read by anchors on Fox News. At times, they are impossible to distinguish.
TV: How should the media respond to future instances of Melania’s wardrobe propaganda?
LP: Is it possible to do it without facing backlash for targeting her appearance? Melania's coat is not committing human rights abuses at the border, Donald Trump is. That's the story that matters, and any other story is a distraction and a deflection. I think everyone needs to remember that this administration is smarter than we think they are.
TV: What should people really understand about the media’s contribution to uncovering these human rights violations? LP: My advice for reporters is always to write the story that the Trump administration doesn't want you to write and to talk about what they want you to remain silent about. The Trump administration didn't want reporters to go to these detention centers and record the harrowing screams of kidnapped children. They didn't want photographers to snap pictures of toddlers crying for their mother. Do you know how we know that? The president (predictably) called those "phony stories of sadness and grief." Those images and sounds are of course real, but they contradicted the White House's narrative (pushed on the record by very senior officials), and eventually led to a reversal of their policy because it made the public so outraged they had no choice.
So, again, the role of journalists in 2018 is to draw attention to what the Trump administration doesn't want them to draw attention to. Donald Trump is not our assignment editor. Journalists choose what to cover. The Melania jacket is a pristine example of an attempt to control what the media does and then create a backlash against it. It's such an effective strategy, it worked! Behavioral scientist George Lakoff writes a lot about this, and warns about the different framing devices that the Trump administration uses to warp reality. Reporters need to determine the framing, not let the Trump administration do it for them.
A perfect example is how the media reported about "tender-age" centers, which is an Orwellian term to describe detention camps for babies. Reporters don't have to (and, in fact, shouldn't) use the words the administration wants us to use. We are not covering a normal government. Those days are over. Two days ago, when the president signed an executive order to end his own policy of separating families at the border, he took credit for solving a crisis that he himself created. That is gaslighting at its highest form. And only five days before he did that, he praised Kim Jong Un, a dictator who murders his own people. "People sit up at attention, I want my people to do the same," he told Steve Doocy on the White House lawn.
The only way for journalists to learn more about how to be a good reporter in 2018 is by looking at the way the media operates in authoritarian regimes, because it's overtly clear that we are living in one.
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