How should journalists cover people who lie routinely and brazenly, and whose plain goal is to delegitimize the traditional press as an institution?
You’d have imagined by now that American journalists from major news organizations would have a strategy, given the Trump team’s habitual contempt for truth during the presidential campaign. But by the end of Day 2 of the Trump presidency, it was clear that the press corps—or at least the portion of it that covers the White House—is still groping for a way forward.
Saturday’s triple spectacle was a lesson and a harbinger. On a day when millions of people took to the streets in America and across the globe in a wave of women’s marches to protest Trump’s misogyny, racism, corruption, and more, Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, took to their podiums and shredded truth as they attacked journalism.
It’s so routine for Trump to lie at this point that journalists seem to almost shrug it off, even as they often (though not always) point out the falsehoods, at least the major ones. So amid his rambling remarks in Virginia to a crowd of CIA employees and members of his own staff, a whopper greatly inflating the size of the inauguration audience on the National Mall was fairly routine for him. So was his bizarre claim that he hadn’t fiercely attacked the intelligence community—even though that’s what he’s used his own Twitter account to do in recent weeks. And he expressed his opinion, not for the first time, that journalists are terrible people.
But Spicer’s tirade, several hours later in the White House press room, was anything but routine. 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. His most memorable false statement: “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” (No, it wasn’t.)
Journalists’ reaction was instructive, and in some cases deeply disappointing. A few organizations parroted that line directly, in tweets and headlines and stories—most that I saw have now been updated to be more accurate—perhaps on the journalistic theory that the job of news organizations is to write down or record what people say and publish it. This, of course, is stenography, not journalism—and an utter abdication of journalism’s watchdog role.
The problem is compounded when people live-tweet an event, which in its worst form is little more than broadcasting a text version of live video. (Even if a Twitter user follows a tweet quoting an official with another tweet offering some context or analysis, there’s always the risk that only one of those tweets will reach a critical mass of eyeballs.) When you’re covering people who don’t tell the truth, you have a problem: You may end up giving them a direct, unedited line to your audience.
CNN, manifestly culpable for giving Trump a massive amount of free, unedited airtime through the primary and general elections, did the best job on Saturday. As CNN’s excellent media reporter Brian Stelter said in a tweet, his news channel “made a conscious choice not to show the @PressSec statement live. The decision was to monitor the statement & then report on it.”
When the CNN story appeared, it had a perfect headline: “White House Press Secretary Attacks Media for Accurately Reporting Inauguration Crowds.” The channel’s handling of this affair struck me as nearly ideal.
Several news organizations initially erred but recovered fast. The New York Times’ original web headline, “Trump Attacks Media on Crowd Size,” morphed over time into what appeared in the newspaper on Sunday, a much better handling of what happened: “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift.” Headlines—and tweets are essentially headlines—matter a great deal, since many people don’t read further. Getting to the truth in the body of a story is helpful but not nearly enough.
One emerging school of thought among Washington journalists holds that maybe they shouldn’t bother to attend Spicer’s briefings at all.
The advantage of this is obvious: Freed from the constraints of traditional White House reporting, journalists might have more time to investigate an administration that plans to upend all kinds of norms and laws. But it would also be an abandonment of one of the press’ central roles in Washington: asking, or at least trying to ask, tough questions. Given the Republican Congress’ plain disinterest in holding Trump to account, and Democrats’ own initial struggles to serve as a counterweight, a serious press is more essential than ever. Access to power is overrated, but we need at least some honest reporters to monitor Spicer’s statements and, when he permits it (he didn’t on Saturday), ask questions that the American people need answers to.
But to do so, we also need journalists to adopt some new rules of engagement. The lies about crowd size from Trump and Spicer were, in the larger scheme of things, minor. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway’s insistence on Sunday that Spicer was offering “alternative facts” was brazen but laughable.* All of their statements are harbingers of much worse. Maybe it’s too much to expect journalists to act collectively, but in order to do their job and serve the public interest, it’s essential that they change some of the ground rules, and do it together.
First, major news organizations need to follow CNN’s lead and decline to air press briefings from known prevaricators live. Do what CNN did: Listen, separate truth from falsehood, and then report accurately. If Spicer tells the truth, feel free to run the statement in full. Using the same logic, I’d also urge media to stop running Trump’s statements live but recognize that’s never going to happen. (During the campaign I urged that debate broadcasts not run live but be quickly vetted for falsehoods before airing. No one took me up on that.)
Second, don’t live-tweet or live-blog, for the same reasons, unless you are certain you’re not just retransmitting bogus information. Far too many people only read headlines and tweets and rarely hear or see the substance. Analyzing statements in real time is fraught with problems, but letting quotes stand alone in tweets is inviting trouble.
Third, with this administration, it may be safest to assume deceit. This goes beyond the normal skepticism all journalists should have when listening to politicians.
Fourth, when lying happens, make that clear in the headline and top of the story. Don’t just repeat the false statement and then say it’s not true in the body of the piece.
Fifth, ask if there’s a purpose beyond the immediate story. It may well be the case that Trump and Spicer achieved more urgent tactical and even strategic goals on Saturday. They diverted at least some attention away from the massive protest marches, which should have been by far the biggest story of the day. And in the process, they made press credibility part of the day’s memory, moving ahead in their campaign to discredit journalists in general.
The flaws in my suggestions should be equally obvious. What if, among the major broadcasters, Fox News runs the briefings while everyone else declines to do so? And even if Fox suddenly developed a journalistic conscience and held back, Facebook Live, YouTube, and other live-streaming options aren’t going away. (And what about C-SPAN, which is assiduously comprehensive and neutral?)
Moreover, what if there’s a genuine national emergency in which the public needs to hear from the White House in a prompt way? Trump and Spicer’s willingness to mislead will have awful consequences if a substantial portion of the American public decides the administration can’t be trusted under any circumstances; this may be the best reason of all to hope the Trump team will come to understand it needs to shoot straight in press briefings and other communications.
All presidents lie, of course. All press secretaries obfuscate or worse. But this administration, like the campaign, is in a league of its own. And 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.
No, for Trump, the press is truly part of the enemy—the people and institutions who might challenge his unfettered right to say and do exactly what he pleases, publicly or in secret, in the most powerful job on the planet.
Please, journalists: Act accordingly.
*Correction, Jan. 23, 2017: Due to an editing error, this article originally misquoted Kellyanne Conway as insisting that Sean Spicer had offered “alternate facts.” She said “alternative facts.” (Return.)