Jaw Meet Floor
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Journalists are some of the most honest people there are. Truth and honesty is their currency. It’s their passion. “What’s the truth here?” If they lie, or get something seriously wrong, they get fired. American journalists don’t like it when Donald Trump calls them “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” but they shake it off and keep doing their jobs.
Reporters have a lot of experience dealing with liars, but the enormity of Trump’s falsehoods are forcing them to change how they do it. This week when Trump repeated to a meeting of congressional leaders his delusional claim that three to five million illegal voters cost him the popular vote last November, The NY Times and other outlets branded his words “false” and “a lie,” making a declaration that was once rare, but now almost common in the age of covering Donald Trump. That’s a big step for them. It used to be that if one politician claimed the sky was green, they’d quote another who says it’s blue and be done with it.
It’s hard to call Trump a liar because he is so elusive with truth. It’s impossible to know where the President’s ignorance collides with wishful thinking, intentional falsehood, and diagnosable narcissism. This is a man who has lied about the height of skyscrapers he built, even though the facts are verifiable down at city hall.
Trump is now surrounded by a squad of aides who prop up the lies. “He believes what he believes, based on the information he was provided,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said about Trump’s claim of voter fraud. Spicer didn’t provide the backup evidence because there isn’t any.
After Trump inflated the number of people who attended his inauguration, Spicer angrily told the White House press it was the biggest crowd ever to attend an inauguration, causing a NY Times reporter to tweet, “Jaw meet floor.” The next day Trump aide Kellyanne Conway was confronted by NBC’s Chuck Todd and she said Spicer was merely offering “alternative facts,” as if there is an alternative fact to the sun rising in the East. A stunned Todd said, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” That’s a tough thing to say to a close aide to the president.
Journalists are confounded by confronting a liar like Trump who faces no consequences. If a small town mayor behaved like the new President, he’d be gone. Trump lied and deceived all the way to the White House and the press corps is wondering whether the laws of gravity still apply.
Journalists, on the other hand, publicly discipline and execute the miscreants in their ranks.
CBS’s Dan Rather and CNN’s Peter Arnett were sent packing after sloppy reports. Brian Williams was removed from the anchor chair at the NBC Nightly News after inflating his war stories, not because he told a yarn, but because he damaged the credibility of NBC News.
Fifteen years ago the NY Times had a reporter, Jayson Blair, who fictionalized stories he wrote in New York while posting datelines from around the country. The Times published a long post-mortem about the affair, calling it “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”
Lara Logan a correspondent for CBS’s “60 Minutes,” suffered a humiliating months-long suspension for merely failing to professionally smoke out a liar who wrote a book about his role in the infamous attack on the Benghazi consulate. That’s how Trump’s “most dishonest people” protect their reputation and credibility.
At the CIA, even while the agency investigates Russian hacking of the US election, Trump said, “I have a running war with the media.” Not with Russia, the media. This man who declared the day of his own inauguration a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion” attacks one of the American institutions to be most patriotic about, a free press that does not answer to the government.
Truth and reliable information are all we have in a democracy to avoid being ruled by lies. If you can’t believe Donald Trump about the size of his buildings, or his inauguration crowd, what can he possibly say that you should believe?
Reporters might be irritated, but mostly don’t care that Trump calls them liars. One of the great things about our press is that they believe truth will win in the end. They’ll be doing the same job long after Trump is gone. The unnerving thing is that Trump is not just at war with the media, he’s at war with the truth. Journalists will survive Trump. The real damage he’s doing is to the people who believe him.