Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, made a couple of compelling points last night at a George Washington University event on White House reporting. Chatting with GWU professor Frank Sesno, Spicer hammered away at a mainstay of online journalism. “I think there is an unbelievable double standard. When the administration doesn’t fully explain something, we’re liars and misleading. We have no integrity,” said Spicer. “When they [the media] do it, they put a ‘This story has been updated’ at the bottom.”
That was an artful representation, of course: The problem hasn’t been so much that the White House isn’t “fully explaining” things; it’s that President Trump has been lying to the U.S. public for a year and a half, and a policy of trickle-down mendac-onomics appears to be taking hold. Yet his point about news organizations wishing away mistakes with weasel language is dead-on. And as Spicer et alia have signaled, they’ll be forceful in policing such evasions. Good.
Question is, how truthful will they be in enforcing the truth?
In that same session last night, Spicer took aim at CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. The beef goes back to the pre-inaugural days. On Jan. 11, then-President-elect Donald Trump held a much-anticipated press conference at Trump Tower to discuss his approach to the conflicts of interest posed by his business empire, as well as the growing furor over a dossier presenting some wild allegations about Trump’s activities vis-a-vis Russia. CNN had landed an exclusive reporting that this dossier, assembled by a former Western intelligence officer, had been discussed at the highest levels of government. BuzzFeed piggybacked on the story by publishing the entire thing.
A theme of Trump’s press conference, thus, was to lump CNN and BuzzFeed together as irresponsible news outlets. Acosta was there, listening to the president-elect trash his employer. So he petitioned for a question, over and over and over. Trump refused, calling CNN “fake news.” The showdown got the endless-loop treatment all over the mainstream media.
Moments after the clash, Acosta told colleague Wolf Blitzer on CNN airwaves, “I should also tell you that at one point during this news conference, just in the interest of full disclosure and so everybody knows what’s going on and what was happening in the room: After I asked and, I guess you might say might say, demanded that we have a question, Sean Spicer, the incoming press secretary, did say to me that if I were to do that again, I was going to be thrown out of this press conference.”
That night, Acosta told Don Lemon on CNN: “When I have Sean Spicer, the incoming press secretary, coming to me during the news conference … and saying to me if you do that again, I’m going to throw you out of this press conference, that’s never happened to me before,” said Acosta. The next morning, on CNN’s “New Day,” Acosta explained, “He came up to me during the news conference. And he said, ‘If you do that one more time, you’re out of here.’ And I’ve covered four presidential campaigns, Democrats, Republicans, you know, I asked hard questions of President Obama. And, you know, one time I asked him, ‘Why can’t we get the bastards?’ talking about ISIS, they were angry and furious about that for months and months.”
At the GWU event last night, Spicer delivered a glancing slam at Acosta. Asked to elaborate by Sesno, Spicer did:
I think he misrepresented the facts of the briefing at Trump Tower…I would just say that he misled viewers tremendously…I’m not going to sit around and engage with people who have no desire to actually get something right. In the case of Jim…at the end of the press conference he twice interrupted the president-elect of the United States. I went up to Jim at the end of that press conference, after it was over, after the president-elect had gone up in the elevator, and told him that I thought his behavior was unacceptable. And it was. And it was rude and it was disrespectful. Jim told me — he went off on a rant three or four times and we had an exchange and at the end, I told him. I said if you behave like that again, we will have you removed, like if you’re going to act like a protester. Jim then went on air and said in the middle of the press conference, I went over to him and said if you continue to ask tough questions, he’ll be removed.
Sitting just feet away from Spicer at GWU, Acosta said, “I never said that.”
“You did,” responded Spicer. “I’ll pull the quote for you, Jim.”
Bolding added above to highlight an explosive claim. If Acosta really had alleged that he was waved off of asking tough questions, that’s a big media story. Such a revelation would suggest that the Trump team is unwilling to face hard questions. It would also raise questions about Spicer’s fitness to serve as press secretary, considering that no viable media liaison would ever make such a request in the light of day. Yet this blog hasn’t found an instance in which Acosta claimed that Spicer cited “tough questions” in his scolding. As Acosta phrased it, Spicer threatened that if he again did “that” — presumably, being rude and disrespectful — he’d be booted.
The Erik Wemple Blog invited Spicer to cite the “quote” to which he referred at the GWU event; we are awaiting a reply.
That evening, this Twitter exchange occurred:
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) January 12, 2017
The other discrepancy relates to timing, as Spicer claims he waited till the end of the event to berate Acosta, whereas the latter claimed that this all went down during the affair. We’ve asked CNN to iron out that wrinkle, and a rep did not provide an on-the-record response.
Why does the Erik Wemple Blog bother digging into all these transcripts and videos, claims and counterclaims? Because the public’s trust in the media has bottomed out. The trend has many legitimate underpinnings, including bogus and superficial reporting and ratings-seeking TV outlets. Another factor is the incessant and sometimes ill-conceived criticism of the media, notably the tweeting of Trump throughout his candidacy and into his accession to the White House.
A Senate confirmation hearing last week for Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, surfaced an unfortunate example of how politicians prefer slamming the media to taking responsibility for their record. When pressed about a statement he’d made to Politico in 2012 and that was repeated in Talking Points Memo, Price responded, “Oh well, now there’s a reliable source.” Then he said, “I don’t believe I ever made that statement.” As this blog reported, Price and his office never raised a fuss about the statement at the time that Politico reported it. In fact, his office offered further comment bolstering the comment, which related to Obamacare’s proviso that insurance providers take all comers regardless of preexisting conditions.
Such exaggerated or altogether baseless criticisms of the media are easy to launch. Way too easy to launch. Eventually, somehow, we’ll all pay the price for them.