On Saturday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held the first “press conference” of the new administration. Only it wasn’t a press conference, or anything more than a tantrum, really. As Dan Gillmor wrote for Slate [disclosure: I hosted Gillmor when he spoke at the News & Record in 2005], “Press secretaries almost always alienate White House reporters, but typically that takes a while. Spicer took care of it on his first full day in the job by spouting demonstrable untruths about the inauguration audience even as he lambasted the press.”
He kept reporters waiting for more than an hour. Then he read a vitriolic screed in which he falsely insisted that the news media had deliberately understated attendance at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Then he excoriated the press. And then he left without taking questions. Watch:
There are several things going on here.
First, he’s lying about the crowd size.
Second, he’s claiming that the administration refuses to be held accountable by the news media, despite that having been the media’s role since the framing of the Bill of Rights.
Third, he’s refusing even to take questions, let alone allow response to his unreasoning accusations against the media.
Why is he doing all this? I don’t know what’s in Spicer’s head, let alone in the heads of his bosses, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump himself. But here is what I believe: He’s doing it not because he actually thinks he’s right, but because he’s trying to create a media atmosphere in which readers/viewers simply conclude that there IS no objective truth, that the truth is not knowable, and that therefore the media cannot and should not be believed. In such an atmosphere, a government leader may act, and even do terrible things, secure in the knowledge that the public will not hold him accountable because he can simply say that whatever the media claims about him never happened. And people will either believe that it never happened or they will shrug and conclude that there’s no way ever to know and so there’s nothing that can be done.
Then, on Sunday morning, administration spokesflack Kellyanne Conway insisted to NBC’s Chuck Todd that what Trump and Spicer were saying about Friday’s attendance numbers were “alternative facts.” Counting on Chuck Todd to do the right thing where Republicans are involved is almost always a fool’s game, but on this day he pretty much did the right thing, pointing out to Conway that her “alternative facts” were actually “falsehoods.” I wish he, and NBC generally, would learn to call these things “lies,” as CNN did in its chyron on the same subject:
What the Trump administration wants to do to objective knowledge is not only, a short, wide road to dictatorship and atrocities, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Forget such issues as foreign relations (and tricky negotiations about nuclear weapons), that hurricane off the coast is going to strike somewhere, sometime, whether you say it is or not.
So, kind of a big deal. What can the news media do about this?
I don’t have all the answers, but I know where they can start: Trump and his administration want to make the news media their bitch, and the media simply should not allow that to happen.
At the White House, I suggest two parallel steps: 1) The media can inform Priebus that their reader/viewer mindsharer is off-limits, live or otherwise, to such inveterate liars as Spicer and Conway. They can tell Priebus that he simply will have to pick someone to speak on behalf of the president who is not an inveterate liar. I neither know nor care whether Priebus/Trump would even try to do such a thing, so I also suggest 2) that news media simply abandon, for all intents and purposes, its presence in the White House and go elsewhere after different kinds of stories: enterprise and investigative stories that will show what is actually happening in the administration, what policies are being formulated, and what the effects of those policies on everyday people. And then only contact the White House for comment on those stories when they are completed and ready to be broadcast with or without official comment.
Spicer has said he intends to “hold the press accountable.” The only problem with that is that this is America, not Russia. In America, the press holds the administration accountable, whether that whiny liar likes it or not, and if he doesn’t like it, I’m sure Vlad Putin is hiring.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University (disclosure: I was on a panel with him once about a decade ago) posted today on this subject and offered his own suggestions, including:
When I say #sendtheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden. That’s why the experienced reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.
Look: they can’t visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up. The dream of the White House briefing room and the Presidential press conference is that accountability can be transacted in dramatic and televisable moments: the perfect question that puts the President or his designate on the spot, and lets the public see — as if in a flash — who they are led by. This was always an illusion. Crumbling for decades, it has become comically unsustainable under Trump.
“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with [what Spicer is trying to do]. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people to it.
They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts. As I wrote on December 30:
During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.
How likely is this to happen? Not very, if one Twitter exchange Rosen had with a New York Times reporter is any indication. (Although, as you’ll see if you read on down the thread, it didn’t work out too well for the reporter.)
If you don’t want to take my word for it, or Rosen’s, you might want to take the word of Russian journalilst Alexey Kovalev, who has learned about covering Trump by covering Vladimir Putin, Trump’s BFF:
Welcome to the era of bullshit
Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, examples of false moral equivalence, and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it. …
Don’t expect any camaraderie
These people are not your partners or brothers in arms. They are your rivals in a fiercely competitive, crashing market and right now the only currency in this market is whatever that man on the stage says. Whoever is lucky to ask a question and be the first to transmit the answer to the outside world wins. Don’t expect any solidarity or support from them. If your question is stonewalled/mocked down/ignored, don’t expect a rival publication to pick up the banner and follow-up on your behalf. It’s in this man’s best interests to pit you against each other, fighting over artificial scarcities like room space, mic time or, of course, his attention.
This is particularly the case in Russia, where Putin holds an annual news conference, four hours or more in length and attended by journalists from across Russia. We can hope, at least, that journalists covering the White House, a smaller cohort whose members generally see each other every day, can come to a common agreement on how and how not to cover the Trump White House. Even better, we can lobby our news outlets on how and how not to do it, just as Rosen, whose work is widely read in the news industry, is doing now. More from Kovalev:
Expect a lot of sycophancy and soft balls from your “colleagues”
A mainstay of Putin’s press conferences is, of course, softball questions. Which also happen to be Putin’s favorites. Mr. President, is there love in your heart? Who you will be celebrating New Year’s Eve with? What’s your favorite food? “Questions” of this sort, sure to melt Putin’s heart … A subtype of this is also statements-as-questions, but from people who really love the man on the stage and will bob their head and look at the stage adoringly and say something to the tune of “Mr. President, do you agree that a lot of media are treating you unfairly?”
You’re always losing
This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules — which he can change at any time without any notice. You can’t — in Putin’s case — campaign to vote him out of office. Your readership is dwindling because ad budgets are shrinking — while his ratings are soaring, and if you want to keep your publication afloat, you’ll have to report on everything that man says as soon as he says it, without any analysis or fact-checking, because 1) his fans will not care if he lies to their faces; 2) while you’re busy picking his lies apart, he’ll spit out another mountain of bullshit and you’ll be buried under it.
That final point is essential and echoes mine and Rosen’s: You can’t win Trump and Spicer’s game, so don’t even start to play it.
Gillmor also recommends:
- Don’t air live press conferences or other events featuring known liars. And don’t live-tweet them either except to document the lies. As Gillmor points out, tweets are like headlines, and many readers don’t read past the headlines.
- With this administration, assume deceit well beyond the “normal skepticism” of journalists.
- Always, always, call lies lies in the headline and top of the story — again, because so many readers never read past that, but also because simply repeating the untrue statement, even as pure stenography, helps reinforce it in the minds of readers/views.
- Try to determine whether the “story” is news in and of itself, or whether (like so many of Trump’s tweets) it’s an attempt to divert media attention away from other news that makes the administration look bad.
… journalists now realize that the new president and his senior staff view the press in the way all authoritarians see real journalism: not a vital part of a functioning system of government. Not a sometimes annoying collection of insecure people who would rather watch the action than join it. Not even an occasional adversary.
Please, journalists: Act accordingly.
I hope they realize that. I pray they do. And I hope and pray that they will be smart and brave enough not to play Trump’s game. Because nothing is riding on that except the future of our democratic republic.
Finally, if journalists are successful, will Trump’s supporters pitch a bitch about this? Wrong question; Trump’s supporters will pitch a bitch about this whether journalists are successful or not. A nontrivial minority of Americans already are inclined to believe both that anything Trump says is true and that anything the news media say is false. Fuck their feelings. Real journalists and the rest of us are going to have to save freedom in spite of them, just as we won freedom from Britain in spite of people like them, so let’s get started.