The Media Today

Attacks from flacks don’t help the administration’s credibility crisis

June 7, 2018

Scott Pruitt’s troubles are mounting. The EPA Administrator, under fire for excessive spending and misuse of government time, saw one of his top aides resign this week. Millan Hupp, who testified that she regularly spent her days doing personal tasks for Pruitt, will leave the agency tomorrow, according to The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott. When Plott reached out for comment, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox refused to address the issue, telling Plott, “You have a great day, you’re a piece of trash.”

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple argues that the EPA spokesman wasn’t going out on a limb. After listing a bevy of examples in which the agency disparaged reporters in official statements, Wemple writes, “Wilcox is involved in an enormous cue-taking exercise here. He sees President Trump bashing the media, calling it ‘fake news’; he sees White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders scolding the media for alleged bogus reporting; he sees the crowds at rallies roaring for media slams; and he sees little incentive to moderate his vile treatment of reporters. Who’s going to brush him back?”

The larger problem for the administration’s communications staffers isn’t incivility, but credibility. Wilcox fell back on an insult as a last resort because he refused to respond to reporting he didn’t like. Sanders, the White House’s main spokesperson, is generally less combative in her language, but she’s spent the week dealing with a credibility crisis of her own.

RELATED: The White House credibility crisis starts at the top

Back in August, Sanders claimed that President Trump was not involved in the drafting of a statement for his son regarding the 2016 Trump Tower meeting. That assertion was contradicted by Trump’s lawyers in a letter written in January. Sanders has been challenged repeatedly this week to correct her statement, but has referred all questions to the president’s outside lawyers, refusing to answer. Asked Tuesday why Americans should trust the information she provides on behalf of the White House, Sanders responded, “Frankly, I think my credibility is probably higher than the media’s.”

The comments from Wilcox and Sanders should not, at this point, be surprising. President Trump and his allies have waged an all-out war to discredit serious reporting, and a bit of name-calling is the least of the problem. But by casting the media as “the enemy of the American people,” as Trump put it early in his term, the administration is attempting to ascribe malicious intent to reporters simply trying to get at the truth. When media members make mistakes, they correct them quickly and apologize. Spokespeople for the administration, and the president himself, have proven unwilling to do the same. Americans can judge for themselves whose credibility they hold in higher regard.

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Below, more on the the White House’s ongoing credibility crisis.

  • Support from the boss: Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted Plott’s story, adding, “Always a good day when our reporters get under the skin of classless flacks.”
  • An ongoing issue: “The White House and the president have, in fact, frequently spread false or misleading information and have refused to correct inaccurate statements,” writes Politico’s Matthew Nussbaum. He writes that speaking for a president who possesses a shaky grasp of the truth is no easy task: “The difficulty of the job is one reason there has been so much turnover in Trump’s communications and press operations—he is on his second press secretary and quickly cycled through four communications directors. That post currently sits unfilled.”

  • Continued evasions: CNN’s Chris Cuomo repeatedly pressed Sanders about her refusal to address her false statement from last summer. After she claimed that the public didn’t care about the issue, Cuomo responded, “credibility is something people care about. The truth is something people care about.”


Other notable stories

  • For FiveThirtyEight, Dan Hopkins argues that all politics is national because all media is national. “State and local elections aren’t drawing the interest from voters or the media that they did a few decades ago,” Hopkins writes. “National politics, on the other hand, is a bit like your smartphone: Even when you know that other things demand your attention, you can’t seem to look away.”
  • Facebook announced that it will pay publishers, including ABC News, CNN, Fox News, and Univision to create news programming for its Watch service. CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes that the move cements Facebook’s status as a media entity, and, in partnering with a select group of outlets, the company is explicitly choosing winners.
  • CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju trace the path a conspiracy theory took from Reddit to the president’s Twitter feed. They report that the claim—that the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign began in December 2015, not July 2016—originated on Reddit, made its way to far-right blog Gateway Pundit, and was taken up by Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs. Trump tweeted roughly an hour after Dobbs raised the issue on his program. “The latest conspiracy theory appears to have no basis in reality,” Herb and Raju write.
  • “At the heart of the news business are great reporters doing great reporting, and if someone wants to get scoops and scrawl them on napkins in crayon, that’s okay with me,” BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith says in our magazine feature on what hiring editors are actually looking for.
  • Staffers at The New Yorker have unionized, asking Condé Nast to voluntarily recognize their membership in the NewsGuild of New York. New York’s Noreen Malone reports that the group includes copy editors, web producers, fact-checkers, photo and design staff, the social-media and publicity teams, editorial assistants, and assistant editors. Staff writers, who are actually contractors who don’t receive benefits, are not part of the union.
  • The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng, Gideon Resnick, and Maxwell Tani lay out the strategy for getting the president to promote your book. “His endorsements of certain books have become such a common occurrence, pro-Trump circles jokingly refer to the plugs as ‘Donald Trump’s book club,’” they write.
  • I talked with CNN and Sirius XM host Michael Smerconish about his lonely crusade for political moderation. The former Republican—he left the party in 2010—blames a polarized media environment for much of our current dysfunction, and says that “people have got to stop conflating their news and entertainment.”

ICYMI: In dossier lawsuit, BuzzFeed’s ‘fair-report’ defense survives

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.