Earlier this week, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski made a provocative claim about Kellyanne Conway’s behavior as a lead surrogate during the 2016 campaign: that Conway would shill for Donald Trump while the cameras were rolling, but that once the cameras stopped, when her words would only reach the people in studio, she revealed that she was so disgusted by her talking points that she “needed a shower.”
If true, that reflects poorly on Conway’s character. (Conway, for her part, largely denied the claims.)
And the revelation struck me as journalistically scandalous, too: An interviewee on a news program admitted to lying on-air, yet the hosts neglected to inform the audience that they’d been misled? “Wow,” I thought, “what a stark example of insiders colluding in misinformation—and in the guise of a broadcast that purports to inform! Still, better to be grossed out and come clean late than to never reveal the truth.”
Then I got distracted by an unusual news cycle before I could write about the matter.
But I’m reminded of it by the commentator Tucker Carlson, who is a subtle, intelligent writer at his best, and a smug, pandering demagogue at his worst. As my colleague McKay Coppins writes, he has successfully reinvented himself as a “populist” on Fox News, despite his open love of living in Washington, D.C., among establishment elites.
“To many,” Coppins acknowledges, “this populist posture will reek of phoniness.”
To me it is plainly phony. And if you doubt that, I invite you to consider what Carlson had to say upon hearing the story about Kellyanne Conway lying to the public:
His critics in the media often say that Donald Trump is diminishing the American presidency … But it is also true that in covering Trump the way they have, many journalists and have degraded and humiliated themselves.
There are countless example, but watch this one…
I have no idea if Kellyanne Conway ever said anything like that, but I do know TV anchors almost never reveal what their guests say off camera. And for good reason. People come to TV studios so they can speak on TV.
They do not come with the expectation that their private conversations will wind up broadcast to the country, especially when they’re not present to defend themselves. In more than 20 years working in TV, I have never seen that happen. And trust me, I’ve heard a lot of weird things uttered off the air. Television networks don’t have hidden cameras in their bathrooms for the same reason. Even in media there is a zone of privacy, those are the rules. At least they used to be, that was before NBC video taped Donald Trump without his knowledge and then leaked that tape 11 years later to the Washington Post in an effort to destroy his presidential campaign.
So under the old rules that Carlson extols, a paid political operative could lie to millions of Americans on TV news, then confide to the news anchors that she felt disgusted by her own lies, and the journalists would hide the fact of the deception, adhering to an unwritten code that protects the elites who host and appear on television.
But now, a famous Beltway journalist has violated this pact of elites by telling the American public what is ostensibly the truth rather than protecting a highly paid political operative’s lies. If that’s what has happened, Carlson believes that by telling the public what really went on behind the scenes, the truth-teller degraded and humiliated herself, violating that purportedly sacred zone of privacy, the cable-TV studio.
The journalism business presents many tough questions about what information can be ethically reported or withheld. I would never claim to have perfect insight or judgment about them. What’s more, there is nothing wrong with comity among journalists and sources, or different standards depending on the setting in which an interaction takes place, or even an informal rule in journalistic broadcasting that “on-the-air” is on the record and most matters uttered afterward are treated as “off-the-record.” It would be bad form to play gotcha with an off-air joke or off-topic aside. (And no, there shouldn’t be bathroom cameras, though not “for the same reason.”)
Still, among Americans who’ve never absorbed whatever is in the makeup in Acela-corridor TV studios, I doubt many would fail to discern the corruption of Carlson’s position.
This isn’t even a close call.
There are no tough questions to answer or ethical dilemmas to solve when a political operative declares something with apparent sincerity as the cameras are rolling, then promptly admits, in studio right afterward, that the whole on-air part was bogus. There is no going “off-the-record” to declare what one said “on-the-record” was a lie, no expectation of privacy when telling a journalist, “I’m suckering the public.”
Any real populist would know that. But Carlson isn’t a real populist. It isn’t that he places no value on telling the millions of Americans in the viewing public the truth. He just values it less than preserving a safe space on TV for elites to make a living being disingenuous.