Thursday's bleep-show at Harvard featured shouting between aides to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and also some shots at the media, including this one fired by Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager and a former CNN analyst:
This is the problem with the media: You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.
This is a ridiculous criticism but one that we've heard before from Trump boosters such as Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Yes, the media reported what Trump said as if he meant it. And that's supposedly unfair?
When Lewandowski talks about “the media,” he is, of course, referring to news outlets such as The Washington Post, the New York Times and, yes, CNN. He is not referring to Breitbart and the conservative yakkers on talk radio — you know, the people who get Trump.
But here's the thing: Trump's allies in the media took him literally, too.
Breitbart took Trump literally when he said that he would push for a criminal prosecution of Clinton. That's why the site's homepage looked like this when Trump decided to back off.
Radio host Joe Walsh, the former Republican congressman who said he planned to grab his musket if Trump lost, took the “outsider” candidate literally when he pledged to “drain the swamp.” That's why Walsh isn't happy about Trump's inclusion of so many Goldman Sachs alums in his administration.
Infowars took Trump literally when he vowed to abolish Common Core State Standards. That's why the site was irked when Trump tapped Betsy DeVos to be education secretary. Some conservatives view DeVos as a Common Core supporter, though she denies that characterization. Infowars wrote that “DeVos may be a betrayal of the parents and teachers who believed Trump would fight the establishment’s Common Core.”
So, even the outlets that were most sympathetic to Trump during the campaign took him literally. Lewandowski seems to be ignoring the reality that they are now watching to see whether the president-elect is true to his word — and are ready to pounce if he's not.
As silly as Lewandowski's media critique is, he is totally right when he says that some Trump supporters did not take the billionaire literally. The Post's Jenna Johnson interviewed a bunch of such supporters in June, around the time when a Fox News poll showed only two-thirds of Trump backers believed he would actually build a wall on the border with Mexico. The rest just liked his attitude — and didn't care when journalists pointed out the challenges Trump would have to overcome to make the wall a reality.
Thus, Lewandowski put his finger on a fundamental disconnect between the press and some of the voters who got behind Trump: While the media focused on the particulars of what Trump said, these voters decided that the particulars did not matter.
I got a window into their thinking this week when I exchanged emails with a Trump voter named Ed from Massachusetts. Ed wrote to express his annoyance at journalists' persistent requests for a protective press pool to cover Trump, a subject I have written about several times. Ed thought it was unreasonable for reporters to complain about getting ditched when Trump went out to dinner last month.
“Why would anyone want to invite a hoard of detractors and professional mudslingers with you in their sights to a family dinner?” Ed wrote. “I would not imagine that you, personally, would invite someone to eat with you and your family that had just verbally assaulted each member of your family.”
“May I ask an honest question?” I wrote back. “Are you truly under the impression that the protective pool access journalists desire would involve dining with Donald Trump and his family? To be clear, it absolutely would not.”
I went on to explain that the purpose of the protective pool is simply “to be in the vicinity in case of emergency” and that reporters would have been content to remain outside the restaurant.
Ed did not appreciate the clarification: “I realize the journalist would not be at the family table. ... You read into a comment implying the presence of journalists was the idea that they would have a seat at the table.”
The whole exchange was too perfect. Ed said reporters shouldn't get to dine with Trump and his family. I explained that reporters had not made any such request. Then Ed said of course he knew journalists would not expect a seat at the table. How unfair of me to “read into” his words by taking them literally!
It makes little sense for Ed or Corey Lewandowski to complain that journalists take words literally. If words don't mean what they mean, how can we report anything? (Read Aaron Blake on that point.) At the same time, Ed proves Lewandowski's point: Some number of Trump voters take his words literally only when they want to, and they hate that the media does so all the time.