Some of us in The Media™ love to point out when Trump voters beg him to “act presidential,” or when Trump fulfills oft-repeated campaign promises that may actually hurt his own voters. Should’ve seen it coming, we say. You’ve been listening to the same interviews, reading the same headlines, watching the same rallies we are, and you voted for him.
We ought to check our schadenfreude. This weekend, almost all of us were doing the same thing.
This weekend, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stood in front of cameras in an attempt to correct media reports about the size of the crowds at the Inauguration. He repeated claims that this was, in fact, the largest inauguration “attended and watched,” even in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary.
He excoriated the press for false and bad reporting, listing individual tweets he called “irresponsible” and “reckless.” Spicer’s statement was probably not his; it was read from the podium, delivered in the surly and confrontational tone more often associated with his boss.
Monday, Spicer pulled a virtual 180. He acknowledged the ornery nature of Saturday’s meeting, and delivered a briefing of over an hour that moved cleanly from issue to issue. It was a stark contrast to Saturday’s scolding that, while still generous with “alternative facts,” was closer to a real press conference.
On both days, Sean Spicer was doing his job. In our coverage, especially our reactions to Saturday’s scolding, we did not do ours.
Saturday’s event warranted a special kind of concern. It was the first full day of Trump’s presidency and the Press Secretary of the President of the United States was arguing about a series of tweets, a demonstrably wrong claim, and a ground covering deployed by the National Park Service. He addressed the media present as one would address a misbehaving eighth-grader.
Our response was outrage and shock. This was, surely, a sign of things to come. It was unprecedented, a complete surprise, a sign of the vulgar misinformation campaign we’d be subject to for the next four (eight?!) years, or until the Republic is torn asunder, whatever comes first.
We should’ve seen this coming and failed to act accordingly.
Trump and everyone in his orbit have succeeded partially on the motif that the media is biased and unhinged. Many of our responses on Saturday forwarded that. Based on the content and conduct of his entire campaign, pressers like Saturday’s shouldn’t surprise any of us.
Trump and his campaign started calling out individual reporters by name and compiling a media blacklist. They starved outlets that they didn’t like and trained their fire towards reporters and organizations they deemed the “most unfair.” For inauguration week, members of the media were banned from Trump International in Washington DC.
This is how Trump and his team has acted for almost two years now. Their contentious relationship with the press hasn’t hurt them; in fact, it’s yielded wall-to-wall coverage.
Set aside, for now, the fact that Spicer is not the first to tell something other than the truth from that podium. (Two examples that immediately come to mind: Josh Earnest repeating the notion that President Obama’s “JV team” comment was not, in fact, about ISIS, something Politifact flagged; Ari Fleischer telling us “we know for a fact” there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)
Our hysteria isn’t just misplaced, it kneecaps our efforts to deliver the truth to an America that sorely needs an investigative and uncompromising media right now.
What’s evident in the election of our newest president and climbing distrust in media is that Americans really don’t take a lot of reporting at face value, especially if it contradicts their worldview; massed millions do not believe that something is necessarily worth more depending where it’s written. This hurts, but it’s where we are.
The best and most effective refutations of Spicer’s press conference and his “alternative facts” were sane and rational, based on photo evidence of the Inauguration.
Demonstrable facts are our best weapons against an administration that has already demonstrated a willingness to lie to every one of us. It’s to be expected; the president at the center of it maintains a reality all his own.
Here’s what comes next, and ideas about how we can best do our jobs in the face of the new president.
The idea that any journalist, or group of journalists, can find the one story or piece of evidence to “bring Trump down” is fan fiction. Weapons formed against him — legitimate or not — will be dismissed or ignored.
Donald Trump and his businesses have declared six bankruptcies, yet he ran on a platform as a “successful businessman.” He bragged about sexual assault on tape, yet claims “nobody has more respect for women than me” and won a majority of white women. The federal government sued him and his father in the 1970s for denying apartments to potential black tenants but claims he’s the “least racist person you will ever meet.”
And a lot of thorough reporting throughout the campaign shows that when things do go wrong, Trump doesn’t lose. At least, he doesn’t lose first. In his business and political career, Donald Trump has used others to absorb the impacts of his mistakes and misfortunes.
Trump and his businesses have a decades-long record of unpaid invoices and lawsuits. (Some of those invoices are from law firms that represented Trump against other vendors seeking payment for unpaid bills.) Corey Lewandowski was fired in the wake of his handling of Trump’s comments about an Illinois judge of Mexican descent. Paul Manafort tendered his resignation after Trump’s numbers started to drag (and evidence of questionable lobbying in Ukraine and Russia came to light). The list is long; the behavior is established.
This is not traditional politics. It is an exhausting, objectively bad way to run an presidential administration.
Trump and Spicer tipped their hand in that first press conference on Saturday. President Trump is virtually the same as Donald Trump. There will be no “more presidential” version. Tweets posted since his election suggest that Trump will remain as vindictive as he was on the campaign trail; The New York Times rightly points out that inauguration weekend went as any weekend did before he was president, with “angry Twitter messages, a familiar obsession with slights and a series of meandering and at times untrue statements, all eventually giving way to attempts at damage control.”
Again: This is not traditional politics. Traditional politicians will hate the task of putting up with it. That’s good news for all of us concerned about the end of traditional proximity-based access journalism.
If and when something goes wrong, this administration will look to cast blame. Trump will blame the media, as he’s doing already, and on Democrats in the House and Senate. But these two won’t be accountable for everything, especially the domestic and economic issues that Trump put at the core of his populist run for president.
The media has no control over who hires and fires who; the Democratic Party is virtually a shell of itself, with historically low representation at most levels of government.
Enter the Republican Party, a group he’s criticized before and a group I believe he has little reservations about criticizing again. Trump will need a series of increasingly loyal allies to do the work of mashing together Trump’s reality and actual reality, especially less-conservative ideas like “insurance for everybody” and strict trade protections. Yet no one has as much experience in Trump’s reality as Trump, and something will have to give as Republicans attempt to put his lofty promises into action. (And somehow pair them with Republican policy goals.)
Trump’s never been one to reconcile what he sees and believes with reality. If history is any indicator, he’ll take out failures that happen on his watch on the Republicans around him. And spurned Republicans, especially if they’ve been cast out from inside his administration, will be invaluable to the media as we seek to report on what’s actually happening in Washington. Especially if Trump and his team wage a longer campaign to stem media access (as I suspect they may).
It may be tempting to attack Sean Spicer and other members of the new Administration on a personal level when they repeat lies (sorry, “alternate facts”). If this weekend is any indicator, there will be ample opportunity in the next four years. I’ve read criticisms of top Trump officials as lackeys and liars. They’re professionals, and they should be willing to hold their boss accountable, right?
No. Not if they expect to keep their jobs. And as they do theirs, we need to do ours. That means not attacking these people and, in fact, establishing a relationship with them that offers a place for them to speak if and when Trump inevitably tells them “You’re Fired.”
The media’s relationship with the president and the administration is adversarial now. It’s on the media to approach every member of Trump’s team and every interview with a great amount of strategy, and on this front we’re already making mistakes.
Chuck Todd went after Kellyanne Conway on “Meet the Press” over the weekend when she wouldn’t answer his question. It wasn’t productive; it merely generated sound bites for both sides. Conway got to feed an anti-media narrative the Trump team loves and needs. Todd got to reaffirm and display the misinformation and question-dodging that’s already characterizing the new Administration.
Todd should have cut the interview short as soon as it became clear nothing new or factual would come of it. There’s nothing irresponsible about declining to waste time. Viewers won’t mind it, either.
If we’re seeking objectivity, boosting the wrong Trump officials—those in it for a sound bite, those promoting lies and “alternate facts,” even those who pull a Corey Lewandowski and become a media arm of Trump’s communications team—is a poor use of time.
It’s not feasible to mute everyone on Team Trump who misinforms, but start with the worst offenders who stonewall us the most. Establish consequences for “alternate facts.” Remember that media integrity is on the line, too.
The media needs to think carrot and stick here. If we know anything about Trump, he loves seeing his name in the news, even the gossip columns. We’ve established a sort of sick dependency with the Trump Administration, one that I believe affects our ability to report objectively. Understand that Trump has established a new norm of creating an enormous amount of news every day. It’s on us to pick and choose which is most in line with reality.
Now is a time for members of the media to do their jobs in establishing our respective outlets as places of fair stability, ones that acknowledge a duty to report on what’s said and done by the President of the United States, but fairly (and factually). Our jobs and reputations—not to mention our friends, family, and neighbors—depend on it.