Chuck Todd, for once, went beyond his usual “Let’s be nice and fair to everyone, Democrat and Republican alike,” when he confronted Kellyanne Conway on Sunday over Sean Spicer’s bogus claim concerning the inauguration. Still, Chuck couldn’t manage to say the word “lie.” The best he could come up with was “falsehood.”
Well, that’s better than nothing. But, really, the legitimate media—and by this, I exclude Fox, where poor Brett Baier does his best but doesn’t have a chance—has to do a far better job calling out this administration’s lies. And you know what? There are hopeful signs they’re doing just that.
We’ll see how Chuck Todd fares in coming days. But more and more writers are addressing this issue of the Trump administration’s fundamental disregard of facts in favor of Conway’s “alternative facts,” and I can’t recall another time in American history—either that I’ve personally lived through or read about—where the conversation about truth and lies has become so pertinent.
I think it’s fair to say that most of the reporters who cover politics, even the Republicans, know that Trump is a congenital liar. They’re used to lies from politicians, of course, since all politicians do it; lies are the vernacular of politics. But what Trump and his surrogates, like Conway and Spicer, do on a routine basis is far beyond mere lying. Kellyanne Conway gave a garden-variety lie when she said “People don’t care” about Trump releasing his tax returns; actually, 74% of Americans want him to.
But when Spicer, Conway and Trump insist that Trump’s inauguration drew the biggest crowd in history—and comparative photos, shot from the same vantage point, of Obama’s and Trump’s clearly prove this not to be the case, by a wide margin—that is not simply a lie. It is a willful distortion of reality, Orwellian in scope, insulting to intelligence, and violently arrogant because it is so easily disproved.
We’ve come to expect this sort of thing from Trump, the original birther, to whom lies come so easily. We’ve also come to expect a press corps that’s complacent and easily intimidated by powerful politicians. Spicer again lied about the inaugural attendance numbers in his first official press briefing yesterday. Then he lied about lying, claiming that “Our intention is never to lie to you.” But he had the media cowed: nobody really followed through, and there wasn’t a furor in the briefing room, as there should have been.
We have to ask, why not? Reporters are employees, and very often their bosses are powerful publishers who are conservative Republicans, or the country club chairmen of the boards of the conglomerates that own the TV networks. One reason for media timidity in the face of Republican lies, then, is the fear of being fired. Another is what I alluded to above: they get cowed by a Presidential press secretary like Spicer or a powerful aide, like Conway, much less by the President himself. They don’t want to be personae non gratae, locked out of the room. It would affect their jobs. This is exactly what Conway threatened after Todd confronted her: “We’ll have to re-examine this relationship,” she told him when he pressed her, meaning that she—and anyone else from the Trump administration—just might stop showing up on Meet the Press, which would hurt the program’s ratings.
Journalists, print and electronic, have got to get over this anachronism that they can be impartial reporters of the news. This used to work, but it doesn’t anymore, because the Republican Party, which used to occasionally resort to lies, now grovels in them. A media outlet that pretends that true statements and false statements are somehow equivalent, and debatable, is a disaster and an embarrassment to journalism: look at CNN.
What can you do? Contact the big cable networks when you see their on-air talent let Republicans get away with lies. And don’t forget your local media outlets. TV anchors are hired because of their looks, not their journalistic skills. This issue of fake news, of alternative facts, is the first crack in Trump’s façade—his Achilles heel. Just look how defensive he is over it. It’s possible we can splinter some of his more moderate supporters away from him, honest, well-intentioned people who may be conservative but really don’t want to see a pathological liar in the White House.