About 5:20 p.m. Saturday, MSNBC was displaying a split screen. To the left was footage of the protests around the world. To the right was an empty podium in the White House briefing room, where press secretary Sean Spicer would later stand and stun the country. “AWAITING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY STATEMENT,” read the chyron on the MSNBC screen.
“Sean Spicer has been further delayed, about 10 minutes,” said Brian Williams.
Over on Fox News, a similar scene. There was a split screen as the co-hosts of the raucous show “The Five” talked about what would happen in the briefing room. “My motto is ’embrace the chaos,’ ” said co-host Dana Perino, herself a former White House press secretary. Geraldo Rivera was launching into a discussion of “The Celebrity Apprentice” when another panelist interrupted him to focus on Spicer, who was then taking his spot at the podium.
Everyone now knows what then happened. Spicer attempted to show the media that accountability is a two-way street and that reporters would be cited for their falsehoods, even as Spicer himself spewed enough of them to merit a press-conference retraction. In a steady, hectoring tone, he asserted that the Trump inauguration was the biggest ever, which was either a falsehood or a lie, depending on his state of mind; he said that Trump’s big day was the first time that “floor coverings” were used on the Mall for an inauguration, which was either a falsehood or a lie, depending on his state of mind; he scolded people for their tweets (though spared his boss); and he ultimately stormed out without taking a single question from the reporters gathered in the room. PolitiFact left very little of Spicer’s presentation intact.
MSNBC viewers saw the whole thing live: “A lot to discuss there but his central charge … was accusing some in the news media of deliberately false reporting,” summed up Williams.
Fox News viewers saw the whole thing live. “I don’t know what that was about,” said Perino, looking a little stunned.
CNN viewers, meanwhile, saw a large panel discussing Trump’s speech earlier in the day at the CIA, in which crowd size was also a preoccupation. Analyst Gloria Borger and contributor Ryan Lizza, among others, filled the airwaves with chatter about Trump’s rather transparent effort to convince the intelligence agency that he has its back.
Then CNN’s Wolf Blitzer turned to correspondent Jim Acosta, who was standing in the briefing room and abridged what had been transmitted live on other networks. “I can tell you that this was entirely, almost entirely, about complaints about crowd sizes at the inauguration yesterday. … He said that there was inaccurate reporting about some of the tweets and pictures that were put out there,” said Acosta. “He is complaining that this presented an inaccurate presentation to the world in terms of how many people were at this inauguration yesterday.” Acosta managed to fact-check Spicer on his claim about the biggest-ever inauguration crowd.
How elegant: Because CNN didn’t broadcast each and every one of Spicer’s false representations, it didn’t need to correct them, either. Subsequently, it ran the full breakdown.
The Erik Wemple Blog asked CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist to comment on the matter. He replied that he’d let the coverage decision “stand on its own.”
So did CNN have a clairvoyant sense of how much nonsense Spicer would belch out in the course of a nearly six-minute rant? Perhaps not, but the network does have a great degree of experience broadcasting unfiltered Trump material to its viewers. Though CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker stood by his network’s wall-to-wall coverage of the 2016 campaign, he did cede some ground on the question of whether his people aired too many Trump rallies early in the campaign. At a Harvard University appearance in October, he said:
On a nuts-and-bolts level, there’s nothing innovative about what CNN did Saturday afternoon. Correspondents quite often report on an event after it occurred. As a means of sanitizing its airwaves from the Trump crew’s assault on the truth, however, it merits a look from other outlets seeking the most worthy approach to covering this new and already mendacious administration. Should they refrain from running live events in the interest of having less to clean up later on? Or should they allow their viewers to see the full, truth-mangling spectacle for themselves from start to finish?
There are arguments for both approaches.
What is beyond dispute at this point, though, is that no matter how the media approaches the falsehoods, the Trump people won’t abandon them. Following Spicer’s dreadful and petty performance, after all, all manner of media organizations convincingly refuted the claims in widely disseminated fact-checks. Then, on Sunday morning, White House aide Kellyanne Conway was pressed by NBC News’s Chuck Todd on the falsehoods, and she wasn’t giving any ground, whether it bore “floor coverings” or not. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood … Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”