In the early days of the Trump White House, press secretary Sean Spicer spun falsehoods to the media about the size of President Trump’s inauguration crowd; told the media, “I believe that we have to be honest with the American people, but I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts”; asserted, in defiance of history, that Hitler — as opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — didn’t “sink to using chemical weapons”; and otherwise bullied and blundered his way through briefings.
After several months of this charade, the White House began pulling back on televised briefings. In most places, the developments cast the White House in a questionable light.
Then there’s the “Bottom Line With Boris” — a commentary segment helmed by Boris Epshteyn, chief political analyst for the Sinclair Broadcast Group and its 173 local television stations across the country. When Epshteyn alighted on the White House briefing troubles in a June 2017 edition of “Bottom Line,” Spicer’s gaffes were difficult to find. “From the very start of the Trump presidency, the press briefings have veered way off course. They’ve become much more theater than information-gathering — theater in which, frankly, the press has often played the leading role.”
Another theme of the Trump White House is turnover and chaos, as has been documented in painstakingly sourced reports in the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and many other outlets. One moment the White House policy on any given issue is X; then, after a Trump tweet or comment to the media, it is Y. It’s all good on the “Bottom Line,” however. “Just because someone in media says there’s a meltdown in Washington, D.C., does not make that true,” said Epshteyn in a commentary from last month. “Crisis, even when it does not exist, sells.”
Epshteyn worked on the Trump campaign and, briefly, for the Trump White House.
In recent weeks, cable news — particularly CNN — has covered the legal wrangling over the story of Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who claims to have had sex with Donald Trump in 2006. The story encompasses not only allegations of marital infidelity but also hush money and possibly illegal campaign contributions — all very easily journalistic fair game. On the “Bottom Line,” of course, the matter boiled down to prurience. “Sex sells, no matter whether it actually happened or not,” remarked Epshteyn in a March 27 commentary. “Most cable networks and shows are run and staffed by those who cannot stand President Trump and will take any opportunity to embarrass him.”
“Bottom Line” is proof that the Trump goal of delegitimizing the American press is better served by placing his lackeys in the press, rather than keeping them in some White House sinecure. In commentary after commentary, Epshteyn’s focus is classic counterprogramming aimed at convincing members of his audience that the news they’re finding elsewhere doesn’t merit their time. Chaos? Doesn’t exist. Spicer’s ruinous tenure at the podium? Media’s fault.
This strain of programming comports with the tenor of a controversial “must-run” script that Sinclair management recently shoved down the throats of anchors at the company’s stations — and that became a national media obsession this week. The script echoed Trumpian sensibilities about the unreliability of the media. “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think,'” reads one part of the script. Sinclair is seeking regulatory approval for a $3.9 billion acquisition of the 40-odd Tribune television stations, with reviews at the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission.
In his Wednesday edition of “Bottom Line,” Epshteyn defended his commentary from critics of Sinclair. “As you see, my segments are very clearly marked as ‘commentary.’ The same cannot be said for cable and broadcast news hosts who inject their opinions and bias into news coverage all the time without drawing any lines between them,” he said, in part.
Those segments are erroneously marked. A better tag would be “A Couple of Minutes of Gaslighting With Boris,” or, for more clarity, “Your Propaganda Break With Boris.” There’s an argument for remaining calm about Sinclair’s shenanigans, as articulated by Politico’s Jack Shafer. “I might join the liberal dither if Sinclair wiped out its competition on the dial. But as long as I can still change my local channel and avoid Sinclair’s partisan hackery, where’s the crisis?” he asked.
What Sinclair, Epshteyn and Trump are doing, however, transcends mere channel preferences. They’re trying to sever an entire population — their followers, that is — from the truth about their deeds.
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