Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed to have a plan when she called on Breitbart News’ Charlie Spiering first at Tuesday’s briefing.
Spiering asked about the retraction of a Russia-related CNN story and the resignations of three staffers associated with it. Huckabee Sanders took that hanging curveball and swung for the fences.
“I don’t know that it’s that the response isn’t good enough for the president. I think it’s the constant barrage of fake news that is directed at this president, probably, that has garnered a lot of his frustration. You point to that report; there are multiple other instances where that outlet that you referenced has been repeatedly wrong and had to point that out or had to correct it. There’s a video circulating now — whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know — but I would encourage everyone in this room and, frankly, everybody across the country to take a look at it. I think if it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism…”
“I think that we have gone to a place where, if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America. And I think if that is the place certain outlets are going — particularly for the purpose of spiking ratings — and if that’s coming directly from the top, I think that’s even more scary.”
That led Brian J. Karem, a columnist for Playboy, according to his Twitter biography, to respond this way:
“Why in the name of heavens — any one of us, right, are replaceable. And any one of us, if we don’t get it right, the audience has the opportunity to turn the channel or not read us. You have been elected to serve for four years, at least; there’s no option other than that. We’re here to ask you questions. You’re here to provide the answers. And what you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country who look at it and say, “See, once again, the president is right, and everybody else out here is fake media.” And everybody in this room is only trying to do their job.”
Huckabee Sanders disagreed. Completely. “I disagree completely,” she said. (I told you!) “First of all, if anything has been inflamed, it’s the dishonesty that often takes place by the news media.”
She then moved on, taking a few more questions before ending her portion of the briefing in just 17 minutes – with a large chunk of that taken up by her anti-media speech. (Energy Gov. Rick Perry had spoken at length in the briefing prior to Huckabee Sanders taking the podium.)
If you think what transpired in those 17 minutes was in any way, shape or form accidental on the part of the White House, then you are, how to put this delicately, wrong.
Let me walk you through it.
Donald Trump starts his Tuesday with a series of tweets attacking CNN for the story and insisting the retracted piece is an example of “fake news.” Here’s one of his tweets, just to give you some flavor: “Fake News CNN is looking at big management changes now that they got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories. Ratings way down!” (Sidebar: Not accurate!)
Then came this tweet from Axios’ Jonathan Swan at 12:47 p.m. ET, Tuesday, more than an hour before the briefing was scheduled to start: “Source close to the White House tells me today’s press briefing will be ‘must see TV.’ No more info than that but assume level 10 trolling.”
Then Huckabee Sanders gives a Breitbart reporter the first question of the briefing, he asks about the CNN retraction and resignations, and off we go.
Coincidence? Um, no.
What happened Tuesday in the White House press room was a performance by Huckabee Sanders – a purposeful provocation designed to ramp up the tensions between the Trump White House and the media tasked with covering it.
Huckabee Sanders knew she had an audience of one: The President of the United States. It’s no secret that Trump himself watches the briefings and has been to offer up his critiques. And that in his eyes nothing was off limits. Accuse mainstream media news outlets of purposely making things up to spike ratings? No problem! Encourage people to watch a video – which she said she didn’t know was accurate! – from a conservative provocateur with a sketchy track record of journalistic ethics? Why not!
What’s terrible about all of this is that, as a political tactic, Huckabee Sanders’ latest attack on the media is a certain winner among Trump’s supporters. They already believe that the media is corrupt, biased and dumb. They already don’t believe stories produced by the media – oftentimes without even reading the stories to check the underlying facts. And so, attacking the media is like throwing balls at your hated school principal when he’s sitting in a dunk tank. Everyone cheers when you hit the target and no one wants you to stop.
On Wednesday, Trump was tweeting his own attacks at the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The problem is that the Trump White House’s purposeful attempts to disqualify the media for its own political gain has real and lasting consequences. Whether Trump serves for 4 years or 8 and whether he is succeeded by a Republican or a Democrat, the way this White House interacts with the people whose job it is to cover them will reverberate for years to come.
Picking a bad apple or a mistake and holding it up as the rule rather than the exception – when you know it’s the other way around – is deeply cynical. And deeply damaging.