If a White House press secretary had made the remark four, eight, 12 or 16 years ago, it wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows or triggered any irony alarms. Yet coming from the mouth of Sean Spicer, it did. “We’ve got a very robust media, both right-leaning conservative and left-leaning,” said the current press secretary at an event on Trump and the press hosted by the Newseum. “And I think that as long as we have a healthy and robust media, I’m fine.”
Then why is he working for President Trump?
Scroll back to September 2016. Gallup publishes the results of a poll indicating that the U.S. public’s trust of the media has sunk to a new low. Among the astonishing figures in the poll: A mere 14 percent of Republicans express trust in the media, a drop from 32 percent from the previous year. The revelations don’t much surprise anyone, considering that they descended on a news environment in which Trump-the-candidate is slamming news organizations daily on the campaign trail.
Not long after the poll goes online, Trump does a radio interview with New York Post columnist Fred Dicker. “I am very proud to say that I think I had a lot to do with that poll number,” says Trump of the Gallup finding. He mixed that boast with other, commonplace media commentary that he commoditized in his successful run. And he extended the sentiment into his presidency, calling certain media outlets “the enemy of the people” and the like.
So right there in the open, there’s a policy gap between a press secretary who expresses interest in a vibrant media, and his boss, who takes pride in depressing public trust in it. In miniature, this discrepancy plays itself out across the White House staff. As every ambitious White House-covering publication has noted in the past weeks, there are factions and divides everywhere. There are power centers around officials like Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, with Trump himself recently stepping in and telling the unruly subordinates to “knock it off.”
In his Newseum chat with MSNBC host Greta Van Susteren, Spicer scorned coverage of the West Wing battles among Trump appointees. “I think from a process standpoint, whether or not someone’s getting along or not getting along or whether or not one idea is getting [inaudible] another doesn’t make anyone’s life safer or better. I think to your question, I think the more that the focus is on what are we doing — right or wrong — to make the country better, to strengthen it, to make it safer is where I’d like to see the focus … I think whether or not you live in California or Connecticut, your focus right now is, ‘Am I doing okay?’ … Those are the issues most Americans are waking up [to], not whether or not two individuals or three individuals are going back and forth in the White House.”
The ratio of palace-intrigue stories to policy stories, said Spicer, is “a little out of whack.”
Right, and that phrase also describes the essence of the Trump White House.