He’s back — in the body of press secretary Sean Spicer, the White House’s greatest dissembler.
Recently, Spicer tried to explain to a stunned press corps that wiretapping wasn’t wiretapping. The president wasn’t accusing Obama personally of a felony when he tweeted:"Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower" and accused Obama of being a "bad" or "sick guy."
His strange circular reasoning extends to news coverage. He often brings printouts of news stories, usually from right-wing or alt-right sources, to press briefings — “using and misusing reports,” per CNN — to prove his point. Yet when FBI chief James Comey denied the Trump wiretap claim under oath, Spicer insisted “reading a story in a paper isn’t vouching for it; it’s reading a story.”
This dubious logic followed Conway’s infamous claim of “alternative facts.” The ones that said Trump’s inaugural was the largest in history. Except it wasn’t. Not even the largest Republican inaugural.
As for Donald Trump? It’s not clear his brain knows what his mouth is saying. He doubles down, pivots, denies, retracts and lies; the scorecard is forever changing.
Of course, political doublespeak isn’t new. Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s press secretary during Watergate, once said: “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” He also uttered this gem: “The President is aware of what is going on. That is not to say that something is going on.”
Spicer is using his playbook. But Trump and his surrogates have upped the stakes, perpetuating the myth that the media is the “enemy of the people.” A free press is a hallmark of democracy. Denigrating it is the signature of authoritarian rule. Just ask Vladimir Putin or Recep Erdogan, the president of Turkey.
So how do journalists speak truth to power?
The New Yorker editor David Remnick is staging a series of talks at The Public Theater to address that issue.
On March 20, at the magazine’s “Public Forum: Truth To Power.” He was joined by Russian/American writer Masha Geesen, the author of numerous articles and books on Vladmir Putin and totalitarianism, Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker, former “Daily Show” comedian Aasif Mandvi and Brittany Packnett, VP of community alliance for Teach for America.
In our new political reality, or what Remnick calls “a time of unprecedented political chaos, Trump wants us to think that our worst selves are our natural state.” What alarms him is the fallout: “Unmasking the lie doesn’t alter reality.”
Adds Mandvi: “At ‘The Daily Show,’ our job was to point out the hypocrisy. That’s changed. You can’t shame them.”
For Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, the implications are ominous: “The logical distance between truth and reality is huge. Believe the autocrat when he talks of his intentions.”
Trump has made hatred mainstream and ridiculed seasoned policy pros, what Gessen calls “a disdain for expertise.” Such attitudes may be the new White House normal. But it is not the standard for responsible government — or responsible journalism, which exists as a watchdog to power. If you can't shame, you must alert.
One key takeaway, per Cobb, is the renewed strength and value of local media.
“It plays an important, critical role, not just in reporting, but in helping to defeat conspiracy theory,” he says. “In smaller towns and cities, people know their reporters and publishers. As such, their credibility is heightened.”
Let's also agree some issues are above partisan politics. The integrity of the presidency and the refusal to allow any foreign power to affect our elections impacts every American.
Which explains why members of both parties have asked Devin Nunes, former Trump transition team member and chairman of the House investigation into alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia, to recuse himself. Transparency is critical to truth.
“In the past, demagogic elements were walled off, like George Wallace,” notes Cobb. We need to remember that democracy, like serious, fact-based journalism, demands "a rigorous standard of belief.”
After all, we cannot claim American exceptionalism — then dismantle the very government that exists as a beacon for justice worldwide.