Jake Tapper’s interview with Trump White House aide Stephen Miller started with the standard cable-news courtesies: “Stephen, thanks so much for joining us, and Happy New Year. Good to see you,” said Tapper.
Miller replied, “Good to be here.”
The comity soon withered under the weight of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” the new book by Michael Wolff that raises questions about President Trump’s fitness for office. With ample quotes from former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, the book dominated 2018’s first news week and prompted Trump to issue a statement attempting to distance himself from Bannon.
The untenable contradiction of the White House — on the one hand, employing Bannon to advise the president; on the other hand, dissing him when he later makes negative statements — was on full display in Tapper’s questioning of Miller. “Grotesque comments,” groused Miller about Bannon’s quotes in Wolff’s book. “It reads like an angry, vindictive person spouting off to a highly discredible author,” Miller told Tapper. The White House aide also called Wolff a “garbage author of a garbage book.”
So far, so predictable. The more Tapper burrowed into discomfiting matters, however, the more Miller attempted to turn the conversation to CNN’s reporting mistakes of the past year. As this blog has written in great detail, CNN last year botched a story attempting to predict the much-anticipated congressional testimony of former FBI director James B. Comey; it wrote a retraction for an investigation into then-Trump associate Anthony Scaramucci, which led to the resignation of three CNN staffers; and it bumbled into an embarrassing correction over a story suggesting that Donald Trump Jr. had received an email providing special access to WikiLeaks material.
So: When Tapper asked whether the White House was really arguing that Bannon had nothing to do with Trump’s presidency, the two snipped and sniped, culminating in this broadside from Miller: “You have 24 hours of negative, anti-Trump hysterical coverage on this network that led in recent weeks to some spectacularly embarrassing false reporting from your network. Viewers are entitled to have three [minutes] of the truth.”
Cue much more unpleasantness. Tapper eventually circled around to the recent Trump tweets protesting that he’s a “very stable genius” and the like. Were those helping things?
“Not only do I think they help it,” responded Miller, “but I think in the toxic environment that you’ve created here in CNN and cable news, which is a real crisis of legitimacy for your network — and we saw it, of course, with the extremely fake news you reported about the Don Jr. and WikiLeaks story. That was a huge embarrassment for your network. Just like the huge embarrassment you had when you got the Comey testimony wrong, which you’ve never given a proper accounting.”
After some cross talk, Miller said, “I’m getting to the issue of your fitness.”
The host was tiring of Miller’s repeating of his praise for Trump. “There’s one viewer that you care about right now and you’re being obsequious, you’re being a factotum in order to please him,” said Tapper. So he cut off the interview and moved to a different topic. Miller reportedly hadn’t finished his piece and declined to abandon the set, forcing the network to escort him out.
Nasty clashes occur every so often on the cable-news networks. It’s part of the business plan. There was something more in this instance, however, than a host and an interviewee tangling over talking points. Miller was going straight at CNN over credibility issues, torching the network for its misfiring exclusives in 2017. There’ll be no effort here to dissent from Miller’s conclusion that the mistakes amounted to “some spectacularly embarrassing false reporting.”
In each of the three cases, though, CNN corrected the record. For the Comey-testimony thing, it issued a prominent correction; for the Scaramucci misfire, it issued a retraction; and for the Donald Trump Jr. story, it issued a prominent correction and adjusted the article’s text to clarify that the story was no longer a story. Those corrections don’t wipe away all the damage done by the original flawed accounts.
But they do demonstrate good faith regarding the truth, something that Trump and his minions haven’t shown in over a year in the White House. Imagine if Tapper had pivoted from CNN’s falsehoods to those of the president: He would have had a field day with nearly 2,000 false or misleading claims, according to The Post’s Fact Checker. Those falsehoods cover just about everything in Trump’s orbit, from jobs to the environment to foreign policy to his own record. Talk about spectacularly embarrassing false reporting.
The White House Department of Corrections must be a little short-staffed these days, because it’s a bit behind in setting the record straight. The Post’s Glenn Kessler, of the fact-checking operation, writes, “No, not really,” when asked if the White House had corrected its falsehoods. “They did adjust their counting of jobs created under Trump after we pointed out they were counting a month (January) that was based on data collected before Trump took the oath of office. But they never told us they were doing that,” notes Kessler, who also noted that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway had withdrawn her claim about the so-called “Bowling Green massacre,” thereby avoiding Pinocchios.
All of which gives the White House a nearly nonexistent rate of owning up to mistakes. No surprise in light of the boss’s attitude: “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong,” said Trump in 2015.
The White House and CNN, accordingly, are on entirely separate ethical planes. One believes that admission of error equates to an unspeakable weakness. The other views it as a way of restoring trust with its audience. It’s hard to reconcile those differences, especially in front of television cameras.
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