Accuracy in Media

A CNN on-air personality took up for President Donald Trump on Thursday against one of the oldest claims made against him in the media.

In a piece for RealClear Politics, Steve Cortes sought to lay to rest the oft-repeated claim that Trump called neo-Nazis “fine people” after the racial riots in Charlottesville in August 2017.

“Trump Didn’t Call Neo-Nazis ‘Fine People.’ Here’s Proof,” read the headline on Cortes’ piece.

Cortes said his article was prompted by an incident last week on CNN when contributor Keith Boykin said, “When violent people were marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville, the president said they were ‘very fine people.’”

When Cortes objected and detailed that Trump’s “’fine people on both sides’ observation clearly related to those on both sides of the Confederate monument debate, and specifically excluded the violent supremacists, anchor Erin Burnett interjected: ‘He [Trump] didn’t say it was on the monument debate at all. No, they didn’t even try to use that defense. It’s a good one, but no one’s even tried to use it, so you just used it now.’”

The remarks by Burnett and Boykin amounted to disputing “our own network’s contemporaneous reporting and the very clear transcripts of the now-infamous Trump Tower presser on the tragic events in Charlottesville.”

He then provided Trump’s exact quote:

“Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

In response to another question at the press conference, Trump said, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.”

Cortes said it can be hard sometimes to follow Trump’s “often meandering and colloquial vernacular in highly adversarial TV settings” and the “sometimes-murky nature of his off-script commentaries,” but said the Charlottesville statements “leave little room for interpretation. For any honest person, therefore, to conclude that the president somehow praised the very people he actually derided reveals a blatant and blinding level of bias.”

MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace said that Trump had “given safe harbor to Nazis, to white supremacists,” Cortes wrote. NBC’s Chuck Todd said Trump “’gave me the wrong kind of chills.

“Honestly, I’m a bit shaken from what I just heard.’” And the New York Times ran a headline that read “Trump Gives White Supremacists Unequivocal Boost.”

Cortes said the lie that Trump called Nazis “very fine people” – “like many fake news narratives” – has become gospel for “all but the most skeptical consumers of news” and that it continues to this day.

Just last Sunday, he wrote, Chris Wallace of Fox News asked White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney why Trump had not given a speech “condemning white supremacist bigotry.”

Cortes wrote: “Well, Chris, he has, and more than once.” He then quoted remarks Trump delivered shortly after Charlottesville on the death of Heather Heyer, the woman who was run over by another protestor.

“Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” the president said.

Why does this keep happening? “The only explanation for such a repeated falsehood is abject laziness or willful deception,” Cortes wrote. “Either way, the duplicity on this topic perhaps encapsulates the depressingly low trust most Americans place in major media.”

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