Politics & Policy

Memo to Media: It’s Not about You

Press secretary Spicer addresses the White House press corps, January 23, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
When press secretaries lie, it’s to the American people, not just to journalists.

On Saturday, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer created a media firestorm by fibbing about sizes of inauguration crowds. After calling a press conference to claim that Trump’s inauguration had the largest audience in history, both “in person and around the globe,” Spicer tore into the media for their supposed falsehoods; Spicer specifically referenced D.C. Metro figures, fencing and magnetometer placement, and floor coverings that highlighted empty spaces on the National Mall. None of his claims were true.




NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Trump top adviser Kellyanne Conway about Spicer’s routine. “I’m curious,” he said, “why President Trump chose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size. I guess my question to you is, Why do that?” Conway futzed about for an answer, variously misdirecting to the press’s willingness to ignore President Obama’s widespread lies, Trump’s executive actions, and a New York Times reporter’s quickly retracted tweet about a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. being removed from the Oval Office.

Todd’s question is the right one: What would drive President Trump to spend mental energy on a question as silly and meaningless as inaugural crowd size? There are dozens of excellent reasons his crowd size didn’t match Obama’s; the best reason is that the inauguration takes place in a Democratic stronghold, Washington, D.C. (Trump won 4.1 percent of the vote there.) Nonetheless, Trump chose to glom on to media coverage of crowd size. Why bother?

But Todd’s question wasn’t that of the media at large. Their question quickly turned from one of presidential focus and temperament to a far more self-centered one: Why would Trump send out his press secretary to lie to them? Why would Trump want to establish such an adversarial relationship with the press? Why would Spicer attack the media?

That personal umbrage from the media drove the coverage throughout the weekend. On CNN with Brian Stelter, former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon called Spicer’s comments “an affront to anybody who is on our side of the wall and works in this business.” CBS’s Major Garrett complained, “I’ve never seen anything like this, where it was so intense, so harsh and passionate right off the beginning.”

This is why Trump wins every time he attacks the media: because the media are so consumed with themselves, they don’t seem to care about the public interest. When Spicer returned to the podium on Monday, he gave the first question to the New York Post rather than the Associated Press. This sent the collective media into spasms of apoplexy — how dare Spicer violate protocol this way? Why did he give questions to the Christian Broadcasting Network before CNN?

Then, finally, when the more Trump-unfriendly press did get a shot at Spicer, they made the entire crowd-size debacle into a firefight over media relations. “Before I get to a policy question, just a question about the nature of your job,” said Jon Karl of ABC News. “Is it your intention to always tell the truth from that podium, and will you pledge never to knowingly say something that is not factual?”

This is the way Team Trump wants to portray the media: as completely obsessed with their own mistreatment at Trump’s hands rather than with mistreatment of the truth and, by extension, of the American people. By dividing the media from the American people, Team Trump conquers.

If Obama fibbed, the media glossed over those fibs — they weren’t upset on behalf of Americans, because they weren’t upset in general.

The media have been complicit in their own demise for years. For nearly a decade, they swallowed lie after lie from the Obama administration. Why? Didn’t they have an obligation to ask Jay Carney the same question Karl asked Spicer, particularly after Carney was trotted out day after day to claim that Americans could keep their doctors under Obamacare? Why didn’t the media take personal umbrage when Barack Obama fibbed about Benghazi or about the IRS? Why did they seem wildly untroubled when Obama national-security adviser Ben Rhodes peddled absolute fiction about the Iran nuclear deal — and then bragged about it?

Because they agreed with Obama. So they weren’t affronted. After all, Obama wasn’t really lying to them — he was merely lying to the American people! And was that so bad? The American people didn’t know enough to understand the complexities of Obamacare or the foreign-policy rationale behind the Iran deal or the details of the Benghazi attack. If Obama fibbed, the media glossed over those fibs — they weren’t upset on behalf of Americans, because they weren’t upset in general.

Now, in the age of Trump, nothing has changed with respect to the veracity and credibility of the president’s press secretary. The media are angry that they’re being treated as the enemy rather than as the representatives of truth. But they handed over that title years ago.

How can they restore their credibility? By treating personal slights as immaterial, and lies as slights to Americans, rather than vice versa. Who cares who gets to ask the first question at a press conference? Is it really important to a truck driver from Michigan whether Jim Acosta at CNN is upset because Trump called him “fake news” wrongly? Or is it more important that Trump lied to the American people when he said he would turn over his IRS records?

In the end, Trump can fib about crowd size, and few people will care. They see the issue as just another food fight between Trump and his media antagonists. If the media want to police honesty in the Trump administration, they’ll have to assess themselves honestly first: Are they interested in a story because it affects them, or because it affects the American people?

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