A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
No matter who’s in charge, no matter what’s going on, it is easy and essential for journalists to hold powerful people to high standards. And journalists should be held to high standards as well. Lowering the bar is a disservice to everyone involved.
Case in point: Trump aides on the Sunday shows. “One of the reasons this administration does so few Sunday morning show appearances is because of how poorly Mick Mulvaney did on Fox and Mike Pompeo did on ABC,” an emailer pointed out to me. That’s true — Chris Wallace rightly grilled Mulvaney and George Stephanopoulos made Pompeo sweat. That’s how it should work. These officials must be held to the same high standards as past admin officials. And when they can’t handle it, viewers can see for themselves.
This issue came up on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” as well. I said that members of the media are constantly saying that the White House should hold more press briefings. And then Mulvaney held one… and it was disastrous for Trump. Mulvaney tried to walk back his quid pro quo statement, and then Trump reversed himself about holding the G7 meeting at Doral, which was the original point of the presser.
I can hear critics saying “you wanted a press briefing, well, you got one!” Yes, but the press and the public deserves both frequent and accurate information from taxpayer-funded officials. That’s not even a high standard, that’s just a base-level standard…
How about a proofreader?
Staying on the subject of high standards, the president misspelled the name of his defense secretary in a tweet on Sunday. He wrote “Mark Esperanto.” He later deleted the error and posted a new tweet with Mark Esper’s name, but with a mysterious quote that Esper has never uttered in public. Per WaPo’s Josh Dawsey, “admin officials do not believe Esper has said this anywhere publicly” and are confused by Trump’s tweet.
Trump has also been misstating basic facts about the US military mission in the Middle East. I don’t think this should be met with a shrug. It should be measured against high standards that are applied consistently.
→ George Conway said the error is another sign of something seriously wrong: “We all make typos and mistakes, and spellcheck messes with the best of us. But you make so many weird goofs—how about those 1770’s fighter planes? or the ‘Toledo’ massacre?—that you need to get checked out. And you’re frequently incoherent or barely coherent. You need to submit not simply to the short senility test you’ve taken, which tells us little, but rather to a full neuropsych workup…”
When neutral reporting about Trump sounds like criticism
“The facts double as condemnations under Trump,” Erik Wemple said on Sunday’s “Reliable,” pointing out that neutral fact-checking sometimes sounds like an “attack.” I cited the Esper error as an example.
→ CNN’s fact-checker extraordinaire Daniel Dale also joined the conversation. He said “I think what a serial liar like Trump counts on is his ability to wear us down…”
FOR THE RECORD
— You heard it here first: Suffolk University and USA TODAY are coming out with a new poll of Iowa voters on Monday morning…
— Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey and David A. Fahrenthold’s piece in Monday’s Post: Trump “was forced to abandon” his Doral decision “after it became clear the move had alienated Republicans and swiftly become part of the impeachment inquiry that threatens his presidency…” (WaPo)
— Maggie Haberman, Eric Lipton and Katie Rogers’ piece in the NYT notes: “The president first heard the criticism of his choice of the Doral watching TV, where even some Fox News personalities were disapproving…” (NYT)
News cycles are out, shock cycles are in
Cribbing from my monologue on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources:” Every day is another shock, another scandal, another period of outrage… And then the same thing all over again the next day. Doral and the G7 is a perfect example. It’s a “shock cycle.”
As citizens, we have to retain our capacity to be shocked. But more importantly we have to recognize WHY these stories are stunning. And that’s where journalists come in… That’s why the news cycle still matters… Because lots of folks just hear the shock and outrage. They miss “why” it’s shocking. They miss the context. The big picture context continues to be about abuse of power.
Jim Sciutto’s advice for the week ahead
“Ignore the usual misdirection and new ‘villains,'” the CNN anchor and chief national security correspondent tweeted. “Focus on: the steady corroboration of the whistleblower’s complaint; the bloody retreat in Syria & swift Russian, Iranian & Turkish gains; the defection and/or doubts of a (small) handful of Republicans…”