A key plank in Donald Trump’s election campaign was his contempt for what he called the “dishonest media,” and that position has not softened since his inauguration. If anything, he and the rest of his White House team have doubled down on this approach in an attempt to make the media look even less trustworthy.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer started the process with his first press briefing, during which he lambasted the press for allegedly under counting the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. More recently, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway picked up the torch and used it to set fire to the traditional professional relationship between the media and the president.
In an interview this weekend with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Conway—a former lawyer and political pollster who was named a senior counselor to the president after Trump’s election victory—asked why more journalists hadn’t been fired for their attacks on Trump and his administration.
Wallace tried to interrupt Conway at a number of points to ask questions, but the Trump adviser went on to ask “who’s the first editorial writer—where’s the first blogger that will be let go, that embarrassed his or her outlets? We know all their names.”
Conway argued that if the mainstream media was a private-sector business that actually cared about turning a profit, “20% of the people would be gone.” The Trump adviser also criticized journalists who post their opinions about Trump and his administration on Twitter and other social networks while also reporting on the White House and political policy.
A number of observers said the fact that Conway was advocating firing journalists who were critical of the Trump administration showed an alarming contempt for the First Amendment and the role of a free press. They also said that this attitude and her refusal to address head-on questions about Trump make her of little use as a news interview.
Slate writer William Saletan has called Conway “the slipperiest political flack in history,” and said that the media needs a better way to handle interviews with her. “An interview with Conway is like a game of Crazy Eights with one rule change: Every card is crazy,” he wrote recently. “No matter what you say, she’ll pick a word from your question and use it to change suits.”
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Some journalists and media analysts have argued that new outlets should stop interviewing Conway altogether because she rarely seems to confine herself to the facts (or even the “alternative facts,” as she put it in one interview after the inauguration).
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen recommended recently that media organizations should be more clear about why they are putting Conway on the air, because nothing journalistically defensible comes out of it. The process, he suggested, becomes little more than political theater, in which Conway gets what she wants and viewers get nothing but confusion.
“The logic is, this is a representative of the president. This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration,” Rosen said during a podcast with Recode’s Peter Kafka. “But if we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears. It’s not just lying or spin… it’s that when you are done listening to Kellyanne Conway, you probably understand less. That’s a problem.”
The hard part for media organizations is that the more they argue with, fact check, or even stop interviewing Conway and other Trump team members, the more the White House can paint them as one-sided or antagonistic or untrustworthy. And that plays right into the hands of senior Trump strategist and former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon, who wants to do an end-run around what he sees as an irrelevant media industry.
Note: This post was edited on Tuesday, January 31 at 5:13 pm to clarify the remarks that Jay Rosen made about interviewing Kellyanne Conway.