When Headlines Become the Story

Just a couple of weeks ago Donald Trump was accused of spreading a conspiracy theory about the federal reserve.

Today, he said Fed chair Janet Yellen’s interest rate decisions proved she was “obviously not independent” from the White House and was, in fact, a partisan conspirator out to help Democrats.

“It’s staying at zero because she’s obviously political and she’s doing what Obama wants her to do,” Trump told CNBC on Monday. “And I know that’s not supposed to be the way it is, but that’s why it’s low.”

How crazy is that, right? But I wonder where he got that idea. Could it be from headlines like this?

Yellen helps Clinton dodge a bullet

 The actual story from Politico yesterday is about the fact that “Federal Reserve policymakers on Wednesday kept their key interest rate steady.” But from reading the headline, you’d think – as Trump suggested – that they simply did Clinton a favor.

We know how that kind of thing happens. “The Federal Reserve didn’t change anything” is boring. For most people who don’t follow these things that closely, it’s not even news. So it needs to be juiced up a bit.

The problem is that an awful lot of people won’t read the actual content – but absorb the story told in the headline. We’ve seen that trip up a couple of candidates already in this election. There was the time during the Democratic primary when Bernie Sanders reacted to the headline, “Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president” – which turned out to not be true. More recently, Trump tweeted this headline:

Some people had a good laugh about the fact that the Republican nominee spread the news that he lied about his role in the birther conspiracy – which was the point of the story. But Trump knows that the people he was trying to reach won’t actually read it. Instead, they’ll learn that he just managed “the greatest trick he’s ever pulled.” He LOVES that!

In most publications, the people who write the headlines are not the ones who write the actual stories. Even more than the content, they are designed to catch your eye and grab your attention. That’s the business model of how you get clicks and eyeballs. As the competition for that heats up, the role of the headline writer is ramped up – sometimes more so that the actual content writer. That’s how headlines become the story.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.