Professionalism, Propaganda, and the Press

The Trump administration seems wedded to a political strategy of lying to the public, challenging the media to adjust.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior counselor, called Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first official press conference a “tour de force.” That’s not strange, because Trump advisers’ main rhetorical approach is to reflect their boss’ penchant for exaggeration. What’s strange is that much of the media seemed to agree.

Two days earlier, reporters from mainstream outlets had panned a bizarre appearance by Spicer in which, flanked by photographs of the inauguration, he loudly berated the media, saying that the press had “engaged in deliberately false reporting” for failing to note that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration––period––both in person and around the globe.” Spicer also berated a reporter for erroneously reporting that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the White House, even though the reporter had apologized on social media, an apology Spicer accepted.

While many outlets reported that Spicer had “attacked the media,” many more emphasized that Spicer’s claims about crowd size were comically wrong, and reported that Spicer was lying. Spicer falsely stated that the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority had concluded “that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural.”

The ridership on the day of Obama’s 2013 inaugural was 782,000, compared to 570,557 for Trump’s; there were 1.1 million rides on Metro on the day of Obama’s first inaugural in 2009. It was less Spicer’s incorrect numbers, though, than his demand that reporters disbelieve what they had seen with their own eyes, that sparked a backlash.

Spin, obfuscation, eliding context, or even lying by omission––these are normal acts of dishonesty expected from political spokespeople. It is the job of press secretaries to put a gloss on the facts that makes their boss look good. In administrations run by both parties, this has sometimes turned into outright lying or dishonesty.

Spicer’s behavior however, was so different in degree so as to be different in kind––he was demanding that reporters report that 2+2 =5, and chastising them for failing to do so. He was not merely arguing for a different interpretation of the facts, he was denying objective reality. Both Spicer and the mainstream press used that first encounter to establish the ground rules of their relationship, drawing lines for what each would allow the other to get away with.

But any suggestion that the Trump administration’s reliance on, in Conway’s coinage, “alternative facts,” would lead to the mainstream press adopting a more permanent adversarial approach to the White House dissipated the next day, as Spicer drew rave reviews for repeating many of the same lies he offered on Saturday, along with new ones, simply because he did so without yelling.

Consider: Spicer insisted that the WMATA numbers were correct based on what we “knew at the time,” but WMATA’s public statements on the day of the inauguration about ridership at 11 AM made it clear that Trump’s inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama’s two inaugurations.

Spicer  went on to repeat his lie from Saturday about crowd size, then insisted that he was talking about online viewership numbers, while misstating those as well.  He suggested that he’d been referring to the online viewership combined with the in-person crowds and not both. “Again I didn't say in person,” he said. “Both in person and around the globe, to witness it.” But that claim was belied by his attack on the press on Saturday for insisting that “photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall.”

Later, Spicer repeated his attack on a reporter for misreporting that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the White House, and then mischaracterized an apology he had previously publicly accepted.

SPICER: I think you guys might want to leave before I do. But look, I want to make sure that we have a healthy relationship. We saw the other day that -- and I'm not trying to rehash history, but you're asking the question so I'm going to answer it. You know, we had a Tweet go out about Martin Luther King.

Think about how racially charged that is. And someone rushes out and says to the entire press corps that the president of the United States has removed the bust from his office. Do you -- I mean, think about what the signal -- hold on, please.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIC) and apologized?

SPICER: No, no. He actually apologized to "my colleagues." That's the exact quote. OK? That quote, that report got Tweeted out around. And to report -- where was the apology to the president of the United States? Where was the apology to millions of people who read that and thought how racially insensitive that was? Where was that apology?

Both the reporter’s apology and Spicer’s acceptance of that apology remain visible on Twitter. Spicer apparently believes he is entitled to bring the full force of White House condemnation upon a reporter for a mistake for which he apologized, but despite being a public employee, declined to apologize for lying to the American people himself.

There were other absurdities in Spicer’s press conference Monday. He insisted that the CIA had given Trump a “five minute standing ovation” (they were never allowed to sit); after Trump had implied he would go back to Iraq to “take the oil” (which would be plunder, a war crime under the Geneva Conventions) Spicer said “I'm not gonna talk about what we may or may not do”; and he said that the millions of people who marched against Trump on Saturday were “there to protest an issue of concern to them and not against anything.”But none were more blatant than Spicer repeating the very falsehoods that had earned the widespread contempt of the press on Saturday.

The most important thing Spicer said, however, was that “our intention's never to lie to you.” A lie is intentional; it is the nature of the thing. Spicer’s statement indicates that the Trump administration intends to take advantage of much of the mainstream media’s stated ambiguity on falsehoods––that absent Professor Xavier’s telepathy, it is impossible to know if someone is lying or simply truly believes something that is not true, no matter how ludicrous the claim. But Spicer’s somewhat garbled apology, “I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts,” was a true Kinsley gaffe––an admission that the Trump administration intends to  contest  empirical reality, and expect deference from the press for doing so.

Indeed, by Tuesday, Spicer was defending the president’s contention that three to five million illegal votes were cast in the 2017 election. That would be the greatest act of election theft in American history, somehow carried out with such incompetence that it failed to occur in the states necessary to deliver the election to his opponent. His defense of this absurd falsehood was, essentially, that Trump believes it. "He continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence people have presented to him," Spicer said Tuesday.

Yet many reporters echoed Conway’s assessment that Spicer’s press conference on Monday was excellent. A reporter for the Washington Post said that Spicer “handled a difficult situation with “aplomb.” Another said he was doing a “solid, professional job.” A reporter from the Boston Globe said that “this Sean Spicer is closer to the one many of us have known than the one who appeared Saturday. Just one reason that ‘briefing’ was so odd.” A reporter for CNN described this version of Spicer as a “savvy political veteran,” contrasting him with the “propagandist” on display on Saturday.

The verdicts at the major cable-news networks were much the same, even though Spicer had stuck by the very same lies he told on Saturday. Reporters, like theater critics, reviewed his performance and concluded that he seemed very professional while doing it.

Whether it was intended or not, Spicer’s behavior on Saturday did much the same thing for him as Trump’s erratic behavior did for him during the campaign: it set the expectations so low that simply behaving like relatively ordinary press secretary was enough to earn him praise.

The point here is not to single out any individual journalists. The matter here is cultural and structural: Remaining in a permanent state of hostility with the White House goes against the instincts of most mainstream reporters, who seek to remain “objective,” and outlets, which want to attract as wide an audience as possible, and cannot do so as long as they are at war with the administration.

And so the Trump White House now knows that it can lie and get away with it, as long as it does so with a certain amount of “professionalism.” Journalists will have to either acquiesce to the discomfort of a hostile working relationship with the White House as long as the Trump administration insists on offering “alternative facts,” or quietly submit to the notion that two and two can make five. Yet there is simply, no point to political journalism if the press cannot tell the public when the government is lying.