(Editor’s note: Subsequent to the writing of this piece, CNN’s Jake Tapper did, in fact, conduct an interview with counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway. However, according to the newspaper The Hill, CNN “stood by its concerns” over Conway’s credibility. Read Bill’s follow-up post here.)
Bravo to Jake Tapper and CNN for saying, “No!” to Kellyanne Conway when the White House offered her up as a guest for his Sunday program, State of the Union. Except for Fox and Breitbart, no news organization was more useful to Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy than CNN, but now even they seem fed up with serving as a springboard for the lies tossed like grenades into our midst by Trump’s propaganda minions.
Conway, as the world knows, is the president’s senior adviser who doubles as the administration’s official Queen of Bullshit (apologies to my departed father, a Baptist deacon who would take soap to my mouth if he were still around).
She pops up everywhere, criticizing the press for listening to what Trump says instead of decoding what’s in his heart (as we recently pointed out, we’re journalists, not cardiologists), minimizing his lying as nothing more than a diverting sideshow to his beliefs, treating his hallucinations as serious wisdom and deflecting interviewers from serious questions about, say, global warming, with outrageous claims of “alternative facts.”
For someone so self-confidently facile, Conway is stunningly ignorant. Remember how she was sent forth to explain what Trump did and didn’t mean when he seemed or didn’t seem to call for a buildup in the nuclear arms race? A life or death call, by the way, that he sent out across the world on the wings of… a tweet. On Rachel Maddow’s show Conway engaged in a dizzying display of daffy logic, revealing she didn’t have a clue to what she was talking about. She even tried to claim that Trump had not really said what was right there in the tweet, on the screen in front of us.
And then the latest Conway con: “the Bowling Green massacre,” a non-existent terrorist attack that she cited in three different interviews before being outed for deception. There was no, repeat, no “Bowling Green massacre.” It was just more of the same bull. Time and again over the last several months she has been allowed to hoodwink the public, in no small part because anchors and hosts would not risk losing access to Trump’s circle by offending its star apologists with any sort of challenge. Better to let Her Majesty get away with dissembling — i.e., poisoning the public mind — than have her turn a cold shoulder to your next invitation and instead show up airily chatting with George Stephanopoulos.
But someone at CNN finally screamed, “Enough’s enough!” Perhaps Jake Tapper ran across that line from the English satirist Owen Seaman, describing a Conway-like figure from another era: “She looked him frankly in the face/And told a wicked, wicked lie.” And then maybe he saw Conway waiting in the Green Room, threw up, and informed his superiors that he was no longer willing to play her straight man.
In fact, Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times says the news channel’s brass now have “serious questions” about Conway’s credibility. Why it took so long is a mystery. No, I take that back, it’s not really a mystery; Trump, his lies and the squadron of dissemblers surrounding him have made for astronomic ratings among viewers who no longer care about the truth.
On one of my favorite blogs — Digby Parton’s Hullabaloo — there’s a piece about lying by Tom Sullivan. It’s a short but piercing insight into Trump as a legend in his own mind and why he and his acolytes resort to lies to keep the legend building. Sullivan recalls reading about a dissatisfied customer and a regional manager for GM:
“He was lying to me,” the customer said. “I knew he was lying to me. He knew I knew he was lying to me. But he lied anyway, not because he had anything to gain from the lies, but because it was company policy.”
So, too, with the Trump administration, Sullivan writes: “Lying is company policy.”
I know something about that kind of collective mindset. I grew up in a culture shaped by lies. The truth about slavery was driven from the pulpits, newsrooms and classrooms of the South. The truth about Jim Crow was censored, too — including in the small newspaper where I began my journalism career as a cub reporter. It took another hundred years to produce a measure of the justice that should have followed the end of the Civil War.
Denying the truth about slavery came at an exorbitant price, as we are reminded every day. On mornings when I crossed the campus of the University of Texas as a student, I could read the inscription on the main tower: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” But, I wondered as I passed the statute of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, why does it take so long?
I later served President Lyndon Johnson in the White House. During my final 15 months there, I was his press secretary. As he escalated the Vietnam war, hardly anyone, including the president, thought it was the right thing to do, or that it would end well. He had campaigned on the mantra, “We seek no wider war,” words his national security adviser McGeorge Bundy and I had written, but as more troops were sent and the stakes rose, we circled the wagons and grew intolerant of news that did not conform to our plans, intentions, expectations and hopes. The White House became more hostile to journalists who reported a reality on the ground that did not match the official view in Washington. The results were tragic for America and even worse for Vietnam.
I pause to recommend a video: All Governments Lie. Through their own dogged reporting, independent journalists Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, John Carlos Frey, David Corn, Ana Kaskparian, Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibbi, among others, remind us just how important and hard it is to challenge the official view of reality, to expose the lies government tells itself before it tells them to the people. The central protagonist in the film is the late I.F. Stone, who demonstrated how one smart and hard-working, independent journalist can sometimes discombobulate an entire government. See it.
We are living another dreadful and costly lie right now — the lie that Donald Trump is qualified to be president, the lie that the United States can survive four years of a presidency driven by the moral chaos generated by his lies. The man is a chronic liar, emotionally unstable, a threat to the rule of law and a grave danger to a fragile and splintering world order.
Sensible people, both Republicans and Democrats, say these things to me every day. They are terrified by what they see and hear, and by the knowledge that no one around the president — no member of his own party — is willing to tell the truth about his state of mind.
And it isn’t just that Donald Trump lies; to some extent, every president does. Mark Z. Barabak reminds us of this in the Los Angeles Times, telling how Ronald Reagan spoke movingly of the shock and horror he felt as part of a military film crew documenting firsthand the atrocities of the Nazi death camps. It wasn’t true. Bill Clinton wagged his finger, looked straight into a live TV camera and told the American people he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” intern Monica Lewinsky. It was a lie. Barabak writes, “Presidents of all stripes and both major political parties have bent, massaged or shaded the truth, elided uncomfortable facts or otherwise misled the public — unwittingly or, sometimes, very purposefully.” But, he concludes, citing scholars and other students of government, Trump is “in a class by himself.”
Mark Twain wrote of “the silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the people — the one to throw bricks and sermons at.” Donald Trump is our most colossal National Lie — the imposter in the White House. All he needs to triumph is our silence.
So, yes — let’s salute CNN for this one small step of resistance — for refusing to give Kellyanne Conway a forum to push the lie a little further. Perhaps I am making too much of one incident, but cheers nonetheless to Jake Tapper for taking a stand. And cheers as well to CBS network anchor Scott Pelley, who opened his Monday evening newscast with these words:
President Trump told a US military audience that there have been terrorist attacks that no one knows about because the media chooses not to report them. It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality.
Mr. Trump singled out a federal judge for ridicule after the judge suspended his ban and Mr. Trump said that the ruling now means that anyone can enter the country.
The President’s fictitious claims whether imaginary of fabricated are now worrying even his backers, particularly after he insisted that millions of people voted illegally giving Hillary Clinton her popular vote victory. There’s not one state election official — Democrat or Republican — who supports that claim.
For a moment there, I heard the echo of an ancient CBS News, when Edward R. Murrow answered the lies of Sen. Joseph McCarthy with truth, Walter Cronkite got up out of his chair to diagram the crimes of Watergate and CBS Reports — the once-courageous documentary series, abolished long ago — presented the facts about how Ronald Reagan’s budget would inflict suffering on the poor.
Now, maybe someone else will follow, another domino will fall, and another and another — until we in the press have collectively reclaimed our courage and independence from complicity with the state.
Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Journalism Review, reminds us that it is our responsibility to decide how much airtime to give White House propagandists and surrogates. Work to get the administration’s point of view across, certainly, but that does not mean we’re required “to turn the airwaves (or column inches) over to people who repeatedly distort or bend the truth.”
We must call them out when they do, and in the most egregious cases we must ban them from the studios, as CNN just did. They will rage and curse, they will froth and shake their fists and threaten. But who knows? By uncoupling ourselves from this colossal National Lie, we might discover finally what it really means to a nation — and its people — to truly have a free press.