The lesson journalists should take away from Spicer’s rebranding

September 18, 2017
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks onstage during the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Last week was a triumph for the rehabilitation of Sean Spicer’s image. On Wednesday, Harvard University announced that he would be a visiting fellow, and later that day, he appeared in a lengthy—and mostly friendly—interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live! A few days later, on stage at the Emmys, he smiled his way through a cheeky reenactment of one of his most infamous professional moments: when, during one of his first appearances as White House Press Secretary, he emphatically delivered false information about the size of the crowds at Donald Trump’s inauguration. It was almost enough to make you forget that less than three months ago Spicer departed the White House amidst a cloud of scorn and ridicule.

The smiling, happy-go-lucky Sean Spicer of last week was a long way from the combative, condescending, and “less and less available” Spicer of earlier this year. And some journalists were appalled by the transformation. On Twitter, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote, “The degree to which Sean Spicer has faced no consequences is a glimpse into the post-Trump future,” and Fast Company’s Joe Berkowitz wrote, “Let’s not let people like Spicer and Mooch become Cute Things. They were lying mouthpieces, utter disgraces. They should be shunned forever.” On Facebook, Dan Rather added, “It is not funny that the American people were lied to. It is not funny that the press was attacked for doing its job. It is not funny that the norms of our democracy have been trampled…To have Sean Spicer now lead us in laughter about all this makes me uneasy.”

Some journalists were appalled by the transformation.

But if journalists are feeling queasy about Spicer’s second act fueled by entertainers and academics, they don’t necessarily need to sound off on social media; they simply need to practice some of the basic tenets of the profession. One of the core jobs of journalism is providing context and perspective. And it’s hard, maybe impossible, to imagine what Spicer could do in the coming months that would be as newsworthy as his six months as press secretary. Unless he cures cancer, his celebrity appearances and appointments should be treated as a footnote to his overall story.

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It’s also a disservice to readers to report on Spicer’s post-White House life and not mention how unusual and controversial his tenure was. This is a guy famous for meeting with reporters near the bushes on White House grounds, for coining the phrase “Holocaust centers,” for creating the necessity for courtroom sketch artists in the White House briefing room, for defending the detention and vetting of a five-year-old Iranian immigrant. Events like these defined Spicer’s time at the White House, and it’s important to remind readers that they happened and why they matter.

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Two pieces published on June 21, the day of Spicer’s White House departure, got it right. In a story headlined “Sean Spicer Will Be Remembered for His Lies,” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza laid out some of the lowlights of Spicer’s tenure, including when he “defended Trump’s lie about how there were three million fraudulent votes in the 2016 election,” “spent weeks using shifting stories to defend Trump’s lie about President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower,” erroneously claimed that Hitler never used chemical weapons, and “lied about the nature of the meeting at Trump Tower in June, 2016, between senior Trump-campaign officials and several people claiming to have information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.”

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Meanwhile, The New York Times editorial board wrote a scathing send-off reminding readers of how often Spicer said the president’s tweets speak for themselves and how, after Trump “stood before a memorial to Central Intelligence Agency officers killed on duty and lied about his inaugural crowds, [Spicer] said the C.I.A. employees ‘gave him a five-minute standing ovation at the end in a display of their patriotism and their enthusiasm for his presidency.’”

Spicer’s recent star turn is also a reminder that holding the powerful to account doesn’t end the moment they step down. If Spicer is appearing on national TV and speaking in Ivy League lecture halls, he’s still wielding significant influence. Reporters should remember this, especially as he exploits his new and enhanced platform to defend the president, as he did on Kimmel. (To his credit, Kimmel pushed back on a number of Spicer’s claims.) Spokesmen, whether official or not, deserve hard questions.

Spicer is an American celebrity now; that much is indisputable. But when we cover him, journalists owe it to our readers—and to history—to explain the far-from-comedic way he became one. Anything less is active participation in what Gore Vidal called the “United States of Amnesia.”

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Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He sued the Drug Enforcement Administration under the FOIA, with help from the Rhode Island ACLU and two pro-bono attorneys, Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell. Follow him on Twitter: @phileil.