Fake News Forever?

The 2017 Fake News Awards have been announced. First place, however, reached back into the preceding year, going to Paul Krugman of the New York Times for his notorious claim, made the day after the election (9 Nov. 2016), that the markets would “never” recover from the Trump victory; since the opposite has happened—the economy has grown by $8 trillion in the meantime—, the very embarrassing prediction by the left-wing Nobel-Prize-winner was too good to pass up on a technicality. The Times also took 10th place; the remaining places went to ABC News (2), CNN (3, 6, 7, 9), Time (4), the Washington Post (5), and Newsweek (8); the 11th place, not awarded to a specific news source, went to the mantra of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, “perhaps the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people” https://gop.com/the-highly-anticipated-2017-fake-news-awards/.

The inclusion of “2017” in the announcement implies that the awards will be an annual event, and there is little reason to hope that the bias displayed over the last year will abate any time soon, if ever: the members of the mainstream media are overwhelmingly liberal, and seem to be either unaware of their bias, because they spend 24/7 inside a liberal echo-chamber, or to be aware of it but unconcerned, since they see their job as one of advocating for the liberal point of view, distorting the truth rather than reporting it, which they no doubt rationalize as being in service to some “higher truth.”

Given the onslaught of the MSM against President Trump—which has been far worse than that against President Reagan, since the media back then tried harder to appear objective—, it is remarkable how little success they have had; people in flyover-land are far smarter than coastal elites think, as a CNN interview of five Trump voters from Youngstown, OH, has just demonstrated: the five, a diverse group of Democrats who voted for Trump, far from regretting their vote, all still enthusiastically back him https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmZe8J1HrlI#. In part the lack of success of the MSM can be attributed to the changed media-landscape: in the Nixon Administration, and virtually throughout the Reagan Administration, there was no conservative counterweight to the liberal media (Rush Limbaugh’s show only went national in August 1988, shortly before the end of Reagan’s second term, and FOX was not founded until October 1996); now, in addition to FOX and a medley of conservative voices on talk-radio, there is a multitude of conservative websites and blogs covering the news from conservative viewpoints, as well as allowing for comments and thus interaction among readers, who sometimes form a sort of close-knit community.

Nevertheless, although the negative effects have been limited, the constant barrage of misinformation from the MSM does have some effects; for one thing, FOX on any given day is covering the topic with which the other networks are obsessed on that day, usually some unverified report, and so is allowing them to set the agenda and is at best playing defense; similarly, Republicans in Congress, many of whom are among the most skittish creatures ever to walk the face of the earth, then denounce or distance themselves from something which was never said or never happened. The negative coverage of the MSM undoubtedly also has some effect on poll numbers, but the polls, many of which oversample Democrats, as they did during the 2016 election, are mainly important insofar as they are used to depress turnout of Republican voters and frighten Republican officeholders and candidates from supporting reforms.

The Trump Administration therefore has practical reasons to consider taking steps to limit the damage which the MSM can do to it and, by extension, to the country. The feeling that some change is needed is likely to be general, at least among conservatives. There is little the Administration can do to affect how the MSM conduct their own shows other than to decline invitations for one of its members to appear on a show which has treated the last such guest rudely or unfairly.

At press conferences, on the other hand, the Administration could effect changes. The Trump Administration has in fact shaken the press briefing up to a certain extent. On a few occasions, at least under the previous press secretary, local reporters were included in the press conference via Skype and allowed to ask questions, but combining remote attendees with those physically present seemed somewhat awkward; Skype technology could and should, however, be exploited by the current press secretary and her deputies to do interviews with local media; perhaps they could dedicate a part of every day to doing that, if they are not in fact doing so already. One tradition broken by Sean Spicer, that of asking the AP the first question at every press conference, remains broken, as is right, since it can no longer pretend to be more objective than other news outlets https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/nb/tom-blumer/2017/01/26/ap-loses-it-over-lifezette-asking-first-tuesday-white-house-presser.

Michael Walsh has just suggested “discontinuing the briefings and dispersing the correspondents back to covering the police beat in Dubuque and town meetings in western New York State, where they might actually learn to recognize and report news, instead of shoehorning it into the Narrative” https://amgreatness.com/2018/01/18/media-chickens-frankfurt-school-come-home-roost/; the elites of the White House press corps, of course, will stay on the beat whether the briefings are held or not, as much as one might want to relegate them to a place like Iowa in the winter. The option favored by Walsh, namely, discontinuing “daily” briefings altogether, seems like a last resort. In theory individual reporters could approach the press office separately, but the result would be that the secretary or the staff answered more or less the same question from different reporters numerous times, like a teacher answering the same question from students afraid to ask a question in front of the whole class; it is true that many reporters in the briefings ask the same question, on the subject which the MSM is prioritizing on that day, but the secretary in that setting can quickly dismiss it as “asked and answered,” and move on to the next questioner.

Since then it would not be practical to discontinue the briefing altogether, the question arises as to the format in which the Trump Administration should conduct it over the next three or seven years, if press conferences under the current ground rules are deemed unsatisfactory. One option would be to continue the press briefing without televising it live, as it has been only since Mike McCurry became press secretary in January 1995; on occasion, over the last year, the press conference was not televised, and it was reported that there were fewer histrionics as a result. A variation on this option would be for the White House itself to record the whole briefing, and then release clips of it selectively: the reporters who asked serious questions, designed to elicit information, could expect that their clips would be released, while those who engaged in grandstanding or rude behavior could not. Another possibility would be to televise the press conference live, but keep the camera trained on the podium, so that the reporter asking the question was not seen, although the wording of the question was heard, so that the press secretary would not need to answer the question in such a way that the viewers, who had not heard it, knew what subject she was addressing.

A supporter of the Trump Administration could argue against live press briefings in the current format on the ground that they, while contributing to delusions of grandeur on the part of the reporters, nevertheless do in fact increase the prominence, and therefore the credibility, of individuals who are undeniably hostile to the Administration. Another supporter might however take the view that the White House correspondents make such a bad impression that it is actually to the advantage of the Administration to give them free rein; similarly, one might argue either for restricting press access to photo-ops to actual photographers and cameramen, since the reporters come ready to shout a loaded question, almost always unrelated to the event, or one might maintain that the reporters seem like a pack of jackals in such settings, and thus reinforce negative opinions of themselves. On balance, however, the case for continuing the televised briefings as now constituted is unpersuasive: the snarkiness of the White House correspondents will be on full display in the segments of any broadcasts in which they participate, and so it is not the case that the press conferences must be broadcast live in order for the American people to see unattractive behavior which would otherwise remain hidden from them.

If the Administration continues to televise the briefings live in the present format, i.e., continues to allow the camera to pan to the reporter asking the question, giving miscreants in the press an incentive to play to the cameras and ask gotcha-questions, it must be prepared to enforce some modicum of good behavior: someone who becomes very obnoxious, like Jim Acosta, should be suspended from attending for a time; to encourage better questions and better behavior, those who ask a question, usually a gotcha-question, with a condescending sneer should not be called upon to ask another for a while. Although the bad behaviors and the need for punitive measures probably would vanish along with the cameras, if the latter were removed, these minor punishments might be enough to teach the press manners and professionalism, despite the presence of the cameras.

One reform which the White House should make is to take control of the seating in the press room. There are 49 seats (7 rows, with 7 seats per row), which have been assigned since their installation in 1981, and assigned by the White House Correspondents Association for about 20 years. Jeff Mason, Reuters correspondent and immediate past president of the group, stated that administrations of both parties have allowed the WHCA to assign the seats in order to avoid the “potential appearance of playing favorites,” but failed to explain why it is better for insiders serving on the board of the association to play favorites. The WHCA seems to have attempted to forestall any greater reform from without by granting seats to two conservative outlets in July 2017, Newsmax and One America News Network (OAN), the former its own seat (in the 6th row) and the latter a seat shared with BBC (in the 7th row); factored into the decisions, according to Mason, were “regular briefing attendance” and “news outlets’ audiences, both in terms of reach and in terms of preserving (or in some cases adding) diversity in the briefing room.” Assigning the places by lot annually would be the only way to avoid having some decision-maker play favorites; even so, it is a separate question whether any outlet should be guaranteed a seat, i.e., whether only pre-determined outlets should draw lots for the 49 places, so that some of those now assigned seats in the front row would have to be content with a less prominent seat, or whether all the outlets admitted to the briefing room could draw lots, so that some of the beautiful people in the front row might have to stand for a year: it would do wonders for their sense of entitlement.

The ultimate goal of the White House in such a reform should not be just a reshuffling of the deck, but making room for new participants: it is not just a question of who sits where, or even of who sits and who stands, but of who attends. As one looks at the current seating chart, it seems hard to justify many of the outlets given or sharing seats. Thus BuzzFeed (sharing a seat in the last row) is the site which in Jan. 2017 published the so-called “dossier,” a partisan pamphlet full of false accusations produced for Fusion GPS, a left-wing opposition-research and lobbying firm, with money from the Clinton campaign and the DNC which had been passed through the law firm Perkins Coie and then paid to the British former intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who in turn paid Kremlin sources for allegations against then-candidate Donald Trump; a site which publishes what it is unable to verify should not even be admitted to the standing room in the briefings. Other outlets were contaminated by Fusion as well: the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed the bank records of the firm in order to discover the identities of three reporters whom it paid for work related to the Congressional Russia probe; it is possible that none are White House correspondents, but Fusion co-founder Glenn Simpson also instructed Steele to reveal dossier details to Yahoo! News and Mother Jones, which obliged by publishing stories during the election, as the House court filings noted, and Yahoo! News does have a seat of its own (in the 6th row), which should go to a less gullible or more professional outlet, just as Yahoo! News itself should be excluded from the briefings altogether; this would be awkward for Olivier Knox, its correspondent, who has been designated to serve as president of the association in 2018-2019, but that is his problem, and that of the association. Six and one-half seats could be saved by combining affiliated outlets: thus NBC News, FOX News, CBS News, AP, and ABC News, all from the first row, with MSNBC & FOX News Radio (both 4th row), CBS Radio (2nd row), AP Radio & ABC News Radio (both 3rd row); similarly, Bloomberg News & NPR (both 2nd row) with Bloomberg BNA & PBS (both 5th row, the latter with half-seat). Another five seats, now occupied by foreign outlets, could be freed up by reserving the seats for domestic outlets: AFP (3rd row), foreign pool (4th row), Al Jazeera (half-seat in 5th row), Daily Mail (6th row), BBC, Financial Times, & the Guardian (half-seats in 7th row). That makes 13 newly available seats, and one could question several of the remaining tenants; thus the Christian Science Monitor (sharing a seat in the 5th row), despite being around since 1908, has only 70.8K followers on Twitter. It would not be difficult to find replacements who would enhance the “diversity in the briefing room” by virtue of their capacity to think for themselves; Thomas Lifson, for example, editor and publisher of American Thinker, has stated that he would be glad to have a representative at the daily briefing, even naming her (Clarice Feldman). A number of the seats could be filled with various individuals at various times, including trade-association representatives and think-tank employees, depending on the topics in the news; the quality of the questions asked would improve dramatically http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2017/01/media_elites_howling_as_trump_admin_considers_expanding_access_to_wh_briefings_beyond_49_elite_insider_journalists.html.

Without changes to the make-up of the White House press corps, the Administration should evict its members from their workspace behind the press room, as it originally considered doing. The traveling press pool should be dealt with similarly; dropping it was suggested at the blog The Last Refuge, but the pool is a problem largely because the White House press corps as currently constituted is a problem: if the press corps were reconstituted by the inclusion of new media, the pool would be far less problematic. An alternative would be for the Administration to take charge here as well, and to determine which members of the press go along; if the Administration picks those who are either favorable or fair, as opposed to those who are hostile, the members of the press corps who are routinely left out will have to make a case for their inclusion by defending their objectivity, which ought to be difficult https://theconservativetreehouse.com/2017/01/14/white-house-correspondents-association-circles-echo-chamber-wagons-against-trump-administration/comment-page-1/.

The knowledge that Fusion paid three reporters writing about the Russia probe underscores the potential venality of the White House press corps, although most of its members no doubt are quite willing to lie for free on ideological grounds. Nevertheless, in the interests of transparency all reporters routinely admitted to the briefing should be required to disclose quarterly all sources of income, as well as their total income annually. In addition to exposing conflicts of interest, an income-disclosure requirement would help the Trump Administration in two ways: it would increase the alienation of the public from the press, since everyday Americans would regard the salaries of the reporters as obscenely high, especially given how poorly they perform their job; it would sow dissension within the ranks of ideologically identical elements of the White House press corps itself, since those paid less will resent those paid more, and the women in particular, whenever they are paid less than men, will believe that sex discrimination is the reason; they might get raises, and have Trump to thank. To foster a more professional environment in the press briefing, the Trump Administration should also make admission subject to background checks and drug testing, as suggested at the blog The Last Refuge.

It is natural that the relationship between the media and any branch of government is adversarial; the media should be skeptical about claims made by government officials, and ask questions; their failure to question claims made during the Obama Administration renders them complicit in the many scandals of that troubled period in our history. The MSM no doubt would equate steps taken to lessen their privileges with an attack on the First Amendment, but instead it would simply be a matter of pushing back against legacy media and the newer left-wing outlets which the former admit to their club; a truer analogy for such pushback would be trust-busting: the Trump Administration would be ending the monopoly-power of legacy media inside the briefing room and forcing them to compete there with newer and more conservative outlets in their coverage of the White House, just as they must do outside the briefing room. Some of the steps taken by the Administration to defend itself against the agenda-driven MSM might actually make the MSM better; if so, it would be another service of the Administration to the country. Indeed, one might argue that the Administration has a duty to try; David Limbaugh draws a distinction between the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press and the persons who constitute the press at any given moment: “Individuals, other entities and even officeholders have just as much a right to hold the press accountable as the press has to hold the government and government officials accountable.” Thus, although our initial instinct might be to say that it is not the role of the executive branch to improve the media, and ultimately, clearly, it is up to the media, being free, to improve themselves, the Administration can at least create conditions which make that outcome more likely, and should do so https://townhall.com/columnists/davidlimbaugh/2018/01/19/the-press-is-not-above-reproach-n2436302.
One change which does not need to be made is the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has been on the job since July. Her predecessor, Sean Spicer, on the job for the first six months of the Administration, was probably not the right person for the position under the circumstances; he would have been the ideal candidate, given his experience, if the press behaved professionally, or even if it behaved with the same level of animus shown toward President Reagan, but in the current cultural climate a white male is not a sympathetic figure, especially among the part of the populace doing the attacking. Partly because she is a female, Sarah is a more sympathetic figure: cognitive dissonance prevents attacks on her by someone on the left from resonating with the left, which routinely attributes criticism of (liberal) females to misogyny, of which no liberal wants to be accused. Sarah also comes across as a very down-to-earth person, a working mom; Sean Spicer seems like a very modest and nice person himself, but he perhaps was a little more reserved—he never made pecan pie for the press corps, after all (undeserving as that group is). Sarah also exudes warmth and genuineness—qualities which Sean probably has in equal measure, but he somehow did not exude them in equal measure. It is hard to put into words, but Sean seems to be the sort of person you really like after you get to know him, whereas Sarah is the sort of person you feel like you know after seeing her on television, and like right away. On any given day, in fact, the only two likable people in the room are Sarah and John Gizzi, the Newsmax correspondent who always asks serious questions in a professional manner. In short, Sarah is very relatable; there probably has never been a more relatable press secretary in the history of the presidency, certainly not in the age of video. It seems very likely that the women of America, especially the working moms of America, relate to her very easily, and that is no small thing, since there has long been (at least since the Reagan years) a Republican gender gap with women; it only makes her more relatable on the occasions when the left makes fun of her because of her weight, since at any one time most of the women in America are fixated on their weight. When you have a Republican press secretary whom SNL has not figured out a way to ridicule without making itself look worse, you have ideally matched the person to the position. It is to be hoped that she can tolerate the grueling schedule and stay for the remainder of the Trump presidency, and that changes to the organization of the press room and the composition of the press corps allow her to become an even more effective spokesperson for the Trump Administration.