It’s against the press. That was no surprise. But it was sudden and it was vicious, not a shot across the bow, but a declaration of war delivered to unsuspecting reporters called in for the administration’s first briefing.
Instead of a briefing, the press secretary Sean Spicer delivered a sucker punch, rebuking one reporter for a mistake he had corrected within minutes regarding a Martin Luther King bust, then accusing the others at length of lying deliberately about crowd size at the inauguration. It was a full-blown tantrum.
“Shameful and wrong,” “deliberately false reporting,” “shameful and reckless,” he said.
Spicer then told some lies of his own.
- “We know that 420,000 used the DC Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural.” Metro officials reported 570,557 people entered the system Friday compared with 782,000 riders on Obama’s 2009 inaugural day.
- “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period….” Though crowd sizes are difficult to gauge, photo analysis and subway ridership figures indicate that the crowd in 2009 was significantly larger.
- “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings were used to protect the grass on the mall.” Photographs from the previous inauguration show floor coverings.
- “This was the first time that fencing and magnetometers went so far back on the mall.” The Secret Service said no magnetometers were used on the mall.
After a few perfunctory details about scheduling, Spicer turned and abruptly left the room. No questions. The line had been drawn. There would be no assumption of good will and no courtesy. He served notice that every mistake and every unwanted truth will henceforth be considered evidence of deliberate lying. Trump had already said “I have a running war with the media.” He’s called reporters “scum” and “the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
Spicer arrived at the briefing an hour late, looking shaken and tense, his tone unfriendly, as if he’d just been braced against a wall by the President himself. Trump had just come from meeting CIA employees to repair damage caused by earlier insults he’d hurled at them. He blamed the damage on “dishonest” media and devoted the rest of his talk to a discussion of his own popularity, proven by crowd sizes and his exaggerated count of appearances on the cover of TIME.
The next morning, Sunday, Kellyanne Conway in an aggressively unresponsive interview with Chuck Todd of MSNBC, told him that if he continued to criticize Spicer, “we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here.”
That has already happened on both sides of the divide. Trump’s instinct is to attack the bearer of bad tidings, to kill the messenger and listen only to those who flatter him. He attacked his intelligence briefers, preferring ignorance.
But his team’s consistent mangling of any news he does not like cannot be allowed to stand. Reporters will have to fashion a new form of journalism less dependent on access to administration sources, a more aggressive style of investigation while maintaining their rigorous commitment to truth.
Mutual respect and assumptions of good will are in the past.