Untruth and Consequences

A brief note on how journalists should deal with the retailers of untruth.

Untruth and Consequences

“Unusually tense,” AP reporter David Bauder called George Stephanopoulos’ interview with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders March 6 about Trump’s claim that, as president, Barack Obama had wiretapped him. “An instant milestone in the hostile relationship between the Trump administration and the media.”

Imagine! A journalist breaks the decorum of a soft morning show to say ‘not true’!

The milestone was that Stephanopoulos responded to Sanders’s defense of Trump’s wild claim: “Simply not true.” Then he asked her whether the president was calling Obama, former director of national intelligence James Clapper, and FBI Director Comey “all liars” for having rejected this latest of Trump fantasies. Sanders repeated her call for a House Intelligence Committee investigation. It was as if I accused you, reader, of being a terrorist and you responded, Let Congress decide!

Imagine! A journalist breaks the decorum of a soft morning show to say “not true”!

“If I hear something that I know to be untrue, then I think it’s my responsibility to point that out,” Stephanopoulos told Bauder afterward. What is astounding is that such a statement is considered remarkable. News flash: Journalist thinks it’s his responsibility to nail untruth!

It’s embarrassing to have to say that this journalistic conduct is exemplary.

But it is. And it must point the way.

Let’s pause for an intake of breath at this breathtaking moment, and go on to consider briefly the larger question that Stephanopoulos cracks open, namely, what to do with this regime’s liars.

There are only two ways to respond to untruth. One is to challenge it bluntly, as Stephanopoulos did.

The other is to challenge it with derision. This is a plain human reaction to egregious nonsense, flat-out garbage. It is the response of the full human being faced with the indefensible. It is to say, with appropriate emotion, that the press secretary’s statement is, well, laughable — that it doesn’t pass the laugh test.

In The New York Times, eagle-eyed Paul Krugman quoted Sean Spicer, the president’s chief designated liar, saying that the government’s job creation numbers “may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now” — in other words, now that the Liar-in-Chief could spin the numbers to his advantage. Krugman notes that when Spicer committed this blunder, “reporters laughed — and should be ashamed of themselves for doing so.” Not so, in my view. Their laughter resounds with appropriate, and mandatory, disbelief. There is more than one way to expose a pathetic flimflammer. Let’s not let the grotesque Trump expunge our sense of humor.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.