This is a story of two media cultures struggling to cope with the political rise of brazen liars.
The BBC’s Emily Maitlis distilled the challenge when she demolished Sean Spicer, the hapless former White House press secretary, with a simple description of the simpleton’s record, starting with his whoppers about the crowds on the mall at Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“You joked about it when you presented the Emmy awards. But it wasn’t a joke,” said Maitlis. “It was the start of the most corrosive culture. You played with the truth. You led us down a dangerous path. You have corrupted discourse for the entire world by going along with these lies.”
Spicer claimed the media had started all this lying stuff by being mean with its reporting about the quality of the Trump campaign’s data operations.
Also, Spicer argued, his lies were just a response to the evil media screwing up a single story about Trump moving the bust of Martin Luther King out of the Oval Office. The story – in fact a pool report distributed to the White House press corps – was corrected the same day.
But who really cares about the facts? Spicer’s pseudo-apology book tour is itself an exercise in corrupting the discourse and perpetuating the lies. It’s just a game, he’s saying to us all, with a little wink. Everyone screws up – Spicer, Trump, journalists – so what’s the big deal?
As Maitlis points out, this isn’t a joke. When governments lie a little, democracies *** a little. And when they lie a lot, we find ourselves in the daily crisis that we are all enduring.
Back at today’s White House, CNN’s White House reporter Kaitlan Collins found herself barred from a press event for having the temerity to ask a question at all. As the reporter for the collective White House media, known as the “pool”, she lobbed a question at Donald Trump and the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker, just like hundreds of reporters before her.
The officials managing communications for Trump’s White House deemed the questions “inappropriate” and excluded her from a Rose Garden statement the same day.
The decision was made by Bill Shine, the new White House communications director and former Fox News executive, whose career rose with the man who is quite probably the most dumb and offensive anchor on television: Sean Hannity.
There is an impossibly large amount of competition for this title, but Hannity – Trump’s biggest horn-tooter and informal adviser – has a strong claim. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, sanity and insanity, is what Hannity does every night in prime time.
The White House press corps reacted with unusual unanimity, issuing multiple statements of support and solidarity for Collins, who was, after all, representing them all. But such statements mean nothing without action, and there are some simple ways all news organizations can and should respond.
They should boycott one of the many manufactured events this White House stages. Something like the next infrastructure week, or a news-free round table with business executives. Every White House concocts these meaningless moments, in a ludicrous effort to please the boss and generate some mindless repetition of their talking points through the media.
Denying media oxygen to Trump is this president’s equivalent of solitary confinement. It might just remind Shine and team why they have a communications operation in the White House at all: to communicate with the public.
Why does the right to ask questions matter so much? In between elections, it’s the only measure of accountability available to us.
In the UK, there is a more aggressive culture of media questioning in part because of the parliamentary tradition of prime minister’s questions – the live and televised weekly grilling of the leader of the government.
In the US, without any equivalent of prime minister’s questions, there are only the informal and irregular opportunities the media finds to pop off questions to a president. Thus the importance of that rare event in the Trump presidency: a full press conference. Of course, Congress could and should ask questions of the executive branch, but that kind of oversight – and balance of power – has shriveled under this Republican leadership with this president.
On both sides of the Atlantic, journalists are reinventing the tools of their trade to respond to the casual lies of the Brexit and Trump projects. Investigative journalism is reborn.
Still, we in the media must bear our share of the blame for the very people who are driving us off a cliff of insanity. The BBC may have awesome interviewers like Maitlis, but in its quest for impartiality, it failed to call out the lies and fabrications of the Brexiteers. Respect for the voters who supported Brexit does not mean respect for the politicians who lied to those voters.
That British failure was no different from the American failure to call out the deceit and disarray of the Trump campaign and presidency.
Journalists on both sides of the Atlantic held one side of the respective campaigns – the remainers and the Hillary Clinton campaign – to a demonstrably higher standard than the insurgents challenging them. Publishing emails hacked by the Russians, without verifying them, was no problem because they were challenging the powerful. Besides, the emails were juicy and their rivals might publish them anyway.
It’s hard to sound outraged about a president echoing Russia’s talking points when you were happy to publish Russian propaganda – without verification – under the guise of election reporting.
This is not just a challenge about journalistic ethics. Given the ruptures in our democratic norms, there are only two checks and balances on the politicians who have lied their way into office, aided by the disinformation of the far-right and Putin’s spies. There are the courts and there are independent news organizations. Anyone who has watched the systematic crushing of Turkey’s vibrant media knows that today’s wannabe dictators have wised up to the power of the press to shatter their deceitful hold over their people.
It’s long past time to wake up to the existential threat facing the media on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s time to ask the tough questions of our politicians – and the tough questions of ourselves.