By David Harsanyi
Thursday, January 26, 2017
The media’s response to the Trump administration’s blatant lies, both on inaugural crowd sizes and over-the-top voter-fraud accusations, have been completely justified. We should stop with the euphemisms and start calling lies what they are — just like The New York Times did on A1 the other day. It’s about time. Five Pinocchios, and so on. Let’s fact-check politicians on chyron scrolls in real-time, like CNN. Let’s call everyone out, including people who claim the election was “hacked.” (It wasn’t.)
Then again, the political media’s rekindled passion reminds a lot of conservative why they don’t trust journalists in the first place. And their reaction can’t just be brushed aside.
False statements deliberately intended to deceive Americans are always lies. Sophisticated falsehoods, whether they are couched in emotional appeals or in an effort to push “good” causes, are still lies. Plastering layers of equivocations, half-truths, and strawmen all over those lies do not make them any less misleading. Bad liars who lie about stupid things aren’t necessarily worse than gifted liars who lie about important ones.
This is a long way of saying: stop acting like Sean Spicer is the first White House press secretary to shamelessly tell untruths.
Just yesterday, as an example, Sen. Bernie Sanders (most Democrats use the same rhetoric) were telling voters that Republicans who want to cut government funding for the abortion provider Planned Parenthood are seeking to “deny” 2.5 million women “access” to clinics. This is a lie on a number of levels. It is meant to misinform people for political gain. This isn’t a debate about semantics or a dollar’s fungibility, it is wholly untrue. This goes on all the time on all kinds of issues.
False equivalence? So far, yes. The Trump administration has barely gotten started, after all. In 2009, when then-president Barack Obama repeatedly said, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” his lie was no less consequential than “Our crowd was bigger.” Worse, actually, because it was a pre-fabricated line delivered in an effort to fool people into supporting legislation that would significantly change the lives of tens of millions of Americans — whether they approved of the legislation or not.
There was simply no way Obamacare’s regulatory oversight and mandates would possibly have allowed all Americans to keep their plans. None. Everyone knew this, yet no major newspaper or news network, as far as I can tell, called it a “lie,” “falsehood,” “untruth,” or even a “fib” at the time. Certainly not the The New York Times. There are probably a couple of reasons why. First, conceptually, it’s the kind of lie we’re used to hearing in political discourse all the time. Second, most journalists covering the president wanted ACA to pass. Only later, when events had caught up to the president, did anyone acknowledge it was a lie.
A broken promise or a fudging of details or a misreading of the future is not really a lie. Obama did those things, too. He also lied, though he was a lot better at deploying dishonesty. His top foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes created an echo chamber within the administration that manipulated many in the media with lies about the Iran nuclear deal that was soon regurgitated for public consumption. Why wouldn’t reporters have treated Obama’s fairy tale about a YouTube video instigating a terrorist attack against the United States with at least the same outrage they treat a Trump lie about crowd sizes?
I realize there are those who contend Obama had a scandal-free administration. Perhaps some falsehood don’t seem significant to those who share a political disposition with the politicians they cover. I.F. Stone, hero of the Left and Soviet spy, famously wrote that “all governments lie.” The full quote is “All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.” The same can probably be said about a press that smokes the hashish they are given.
None of this excuses the Trump administration’s mendacity (although getting sucked into hysterics every time the man says something ridiculous seems like a waste of time.) In the first days of Trump’s presidency, the White House press office has been turned into The Department of Alternative Facts because Hillary had a larger overall vote total (which is irrelevant) and Obama’s had a bigger inaugural crowd (same). All of this speaks to president’s personal insecurities.
Whatever the case, holding those in power accountable is a big improvement over the alternative. The problem is, the abdication of that duty for the past eight years has created an environment in which half the country doesn’t trust you. “Now more than ever” we need the press, they say. We needed it then, as well.
Some Trump critics call this kind of argument “whataboutism,” because they’d like to avoid talking about their own hypocrisy and bias. We can’t reset history every time it’s convenient. We can, however, do our best to call out both sides for lying when they do it.