Kellyanne Conway was invaluable to President Trump insofar as she was willing to go on any TV news or pseudo-news program, say anything and reinforce his view of himself and recent events. She liked to talk about her audience of one — but the trick in performing for Trump on air requires the pretense on the TV news hosts’ part that what she is saying reflects what is going on in the audience. Otherwise, Conway is just some GOP hack saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone thought Trump is as swell as I do?”
If there is a silver lining to the metastasizing Russia/Michael Flynn/Trump train wreck, it is that TV news hosts — the real ones, not Sean Hannity — cannot maintain that pretense any longer. In recent days, George Stephanopoulos and Matt Lauer blasted her directly, essentially calling her a fabulist. Now it’s “Morning Joe” co-hosts Mika Brzezinski’s and Joe Scarborough’s turn. They say Conway won’t get booked on the show because she is “out of the loop,” “in none of the key meetings” and “makes things up.” Scarborough says, “She’s just saying things just to get in front of the TV to prove her relevance.”
Given all that, it would be irresponsible for any news show to put her out there, suggesting she really does know what is going on at any given moment. And should news shows do that, it’s not clear what Conway’s value to the president, if any, would be.
The problem differs with regard to Sean Spicer. He does appear to be in some key meetings — at least more than Conway attends. He does seem to provide at least some information that can be verified or later proved to be true. But he is also a blatant propagandist willing to lie (on the inauguration crowd size, on Trump’s “tough” stance on Russia, on “under-reported” terrorist attacks) directly to reporters’ faces. Here the challenge for the press remains how to tell when Spicer is lying, when he is accurate at one moment in time (before Trump changes his story) and when he is actually providing an accurate account. Spicer has so badly damaged his own credibility that responsible reporters can take virtually nothing he says at face value.
Spicer’s statements, it would seem, must always be put in context. Any assertion should be labeled as such — until confirmed. Known falsehoods should be identified (“Spicer today lied in stating …“). In no event can his word be the definitive authority on what transpires in the White House, because Spicer’s ratio of truth-telling to lies is so much worse than any White House spokesperson in the modern era.
Moreover, when Spicer, as he is accustomed to doing, declares that the president “believes” something or has a long-standing “belief,” the media should demand to know the basis for that belief, why the president continues to reject reality, why the White House repeats obvious untruths and why the public should trust a president who holds irrational and demonstrably false beliefs.
The media, moreover, must remind readers and viewers of the reason for Spicer’s and other aides’ rampant dishonesty: The president himself is dishonest and puts no demands for truth-telling on his aides. To the contrary, he insists that his spokespeople fight for him, which often requires them to lie and dissemble, and to constantly attack journalists who refuse to accept their words at face value. The dissemblers and fabulists remain in the White House because the president wants them, and that in and of itself is a central story in this administration.