Not a day goes by, it seems, without another skirmish in the wars between Donald Trump’s White House and the media. Whom you see as the good guys in this war undoubtedly depends very much on your political outlook. Trump’s crusade to undermine the Fourth Estate is bad for democracy and for civil society. But the media’s often unconscious liberal bias also has intensified in this climate of confrontation, leading to more one-sided reporting. And the casualty is the truth.
Take, for instance, the response to the president’s comments about crime by immigrants in Sweden. While speaking to his supporters at a Florida rally recently and discussing the perils of taking in too many migrants, Trump referred to “what’s happening last night in Sweden.” This was widely reported as a baffling made-up claim that Sweden had suffered a terror attack, and was received with a mix of mockery and dismay, with people on the social media and in the news media emphasizing Sweden’s peaceful state.
When it turned out that Trump was referring to a segment on refugee violence in Sweden broadcast on Fox News the night before, the mockery intensified — especially after the Swedish police officers featured in the program said their comments were taken out of context. Meanwhile, Trump went on Twitter to assail “the FAKE NEWS media” for peddling the notion that “large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully.”
The merriment at Trump’s expense became somewhat subdued when actual riots broke out in Rinkeby, a Stockholm suburb heavily populated by immigrants, after a resident was arrested on drug charges. Nonetheless, The Washington Post asserted that the integration of migrants in Sweden was “largely a success story.”
But several well-researched articles, including a piece by the anti-Trump columnist James Kirchick in the online Jewish magazine The Tablet cast doubt on this narrative. Crime statistics are complicated; for instance, while homicide rates have declined in Sweden in recent years, the decline has been smaller than in other European countries. Some crimes such as assault have increased. And places with heavy concentrations of immigrants from Third World countries have seen spikes in crime, including violence. (Whether this is due to cultural dysfunction among immigrants or Swedish society’s failure at integration is another matter.) Some neighborhoods have turned into segregated enclaves where the law barely functions. Just this month, the police chief in the southern city of Malmö issued an extraordinary open letter asking citizens to help curb an “upward spiral of violence.”
Swedish authorities collect no data on the ethnicity or background of perpetrators so as to avoid stoking racism. Yet nearly half of Swedish citizens, polls show, believe immigrants are disproportionately responsible for crime.
Does all this translate into an immigrant crime epidemic? Not quite. But Trump’s assertion that a rapid influx of immigrants and refugees has created problems in Sweden cannot be simply laughed off. And while his vague and rambling comments that seemed to imply he was talking about a current event were irresponsible, claims that he made up a terrorist attack were substantially exaggerated.
Polls show a high level of mistrust among Americans toward both Trump and the media when it comes to telling the truth about the news. In one mid-February survey, they were virtually tied; in a more recent one, journalists led 52 percent to 37 percent. Hardcore Trump partisans are unlikely to budge from their conviction that the news media are hopelessly biased. But when it comes to winning the trust of most Americans, the press can do better.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.