Politics & Policy

Media Criticism of Conway Reveals a Double Standard

Kellyanne Conway at Trump Tower in December. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Kellyanne Conway is good at her job, and the media hates her for it.

CNN has grave concerns about White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s credibility and even refused to have her on its Sunday show recently, apparently to protect viewers from her Jedi-mind-trick powers. 

CNN subsequently invited Conway to appear on the network, infuriating a chorus of liberal-media critics who insist she must be shunned like a harlot in an Amish colony.

Now, I should disclose that I know Conway a bit and like her. At the same time, no one who’s read my columns over the last two years would accuse me of being a cheerleader for her or her boss. 

Conway’s job is, at least in part, to sell the president’s agenda and fight back against a hostile press. She is very good at it. Too good, apparently.

Bill Moyers, who had a similar job for President Lyndon Johnson, lamented CNN’s decision not to permanently ban Conway, which is the “the surest way to prevent a professional con artist from using you to pollute the airwaves with one flagrant lie after another.” Moyers says Conway is the “administration’s official Queen of Bulls***,” which is an interesting charge coming from someone who used to clean out LBJ’s stables gustily.

Journalism professor Jay Rosen thinks there’s little journalistic value in giving Conway a platform. “The logic is, this is a representative of the president,” Rosen said on the Recode Media podcast. “This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration. But if we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears.”

“Another reason to interview Kellyanne Conway is, our viewers want to understand how the Trump world thinks,” Rosen added. “But if the end result of an interview is more confusion about what the Trump world thinks, then that rationale evaporates.”

I can understand Rosen’s frustration. President Trump’s surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, have mastered the art of defending straw-man positions that don’t reflect the actions and views of the president himself. 

But I find this talk of refusing to interview Conway baffling and bizarre. It’s also a bit ironic, given the hysteria this week over Senator Elizabeth Warren’s being “silenced” by the Senate. Apparently, using a parliamentary technique to cut off a demagogic stemwinder in the Senate is outrageously sexist. But cavalierly insulting Conway, the first successful female presidential campaign manager, is fine — and calling for her media banishment is the height of journalistic seriousness.

In 2012, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national-security adviser, flatly lied on five Sunday news shows, saying that the attack on the Benghazi compound was “spontaneous” and the direct result of a “heinous and offensive video.” No one talked of banning her from the airwaves. Nor should they have. 

Here’s a news flash for the news industry: Birds are gonna fly, fish are gonna swim, and politicians are gonna lie. The assumption that Conway is uniquely dishonest strikes me as not only preposterous but irrelevant. If she’s that dishonest, a good interviewer will make that clear to the viewer. Personally, I think Jake Tapper is more than capable of holding anyone’s feet to the fire.

The arrogance is remarkable. The Fourth Estate priesthood thinks viewers can’t see through Conway’s spin, so they must be protected from it. It’s a compliment to Conway and her skills, and an admission of incompetence by the press.  

But the more important point is that singling out Conway would strike millions of viewers — and voters — as further evidence that the press changes its standards depending on which party is in power. Under President George W. Bush, vast swaths of the media celebrated dissent as the highest form of patriotism. Under President Obama, dissent became the lowest form of racism. And upon Donald Trump’s election, dissent became not only patriotic but a requirement for the new mythopoetic cause of “resistance.” 

While not a news organization, Saturday Night Live is emblematic of this mindset. Jim Downey, the SNL writer in charge of political mockery, insisted that there was simply nothing funny about Obama. “It’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled,” Downey said. “There’s not a single thing to grab onto — certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature.”

The Trump White House, meanwhile, is a bottomless source of japery. That’s fine. But the double standard is obvious to those who don’t share the political biases of SNLThe Daily Show, or, for that matter, CNN. 

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. © 2017 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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