White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany thought she had scored a direct hit on the media’s credibility during Thursday’s press briefing.
Asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta about Twitter’s decision to append a fact-check to President Donald Trump’s false claim that mail-in balloting is a Democratic attempt to rig the 2020 election, McEnany said this: “If you’re going to get into the fact-checking business – there’s no one that should be fact-checked more than the mainstream media that has been continually wrong about a number of things.”
She then went on to detail several instances – including a 2017 CNN story in which we wrongly reported that Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. had received an email providing them access to hacked WikiLeaks emails before the public had access – where mainstream media got reporting about Trump wrong.
“In 2017, your network, CNN, botched their WikiLeaks email exclusive and were forced to make on-air corrections,” McEnany scolded Acosta.
Pay very close attention to those last few words from McEnany “make on-air corrections.”
Yes! CNN did do that! And wrote an entire article about the initial article being wrong – and detailed past errors we have made.
Because CNN is a big news organization that is ultimately just a lot of people trying to get it right. And because we are people, we don’t always get it right. And when we get it wrong, we do our best to explain why and how – and try to not make that same mistake again.
That’s how journalists maintain credibility with audiences. Not by never making a mistake, because that is impossible. Rather, by doing everything we can to get the story right and, when we don’t, admitting we didn’t. The very fact that we issue public corrections – in the most transparent way possible – is a testament to our commitment to getting it right.
Now, contrast that approach to how President Trump and the White House operate.
Trump, according to The Washington Post’s Fact-Checker blog has said more than 18,000 false or misleading things in his first 1,170 days in office – an average of 15 incorrect claims every single day he has been president.
Many politicians, faced with being fact-checked and deemed to have gotten something wrong, have one of two reactions: 1) They apologize for the misstatement or 2) (and this one is more common) they simply stop repeating the falsehood. Trump doubles, triples and quadruples down on known falsehoods.
When pressed about Trump’s incorrect claims on Thursday, McEnany said this: “I’m around the President. His intent is always to give truthful information to the American people.”
Sure! Most people do try to tell the truth most of the time! But even if you try to tell the truth all of the time, you get stuff wrong. It happens. Because we are human.
So, how many times has Trump – or a member of his senior staff – admitted they simply got something wrong? Uh, so, well, not many? And that’s being very, very generous.
In fact, Trump’s default response when he is asked to apologize for getting something wrong is an I-am-rubber-you-are-glue defense, attacking and blaming the media. “Where is their apology to me for all of the incorrect stories??” Trump tweeted in June 2017.
In other words: Trump seeks to distract from his own comments and demands that he either retract or apologize for them by accusing someone else – almost always the media – of needing to apologize to him. It’s sort of like this defense used by Al Pacino in “And Justice For All.”
What McEnany’s response to Acosta, which was celebrated by conservative media, proves is the exact opposite of what she was going for. It’s not that journalists aren’t willing to look in the mirror and admit their own mistakes. It’s that the White House doesn’t understand that journalists’ willingness to publicly acknowledge their mistakes is a sign of strength, not weakness.
True weakness is pretending that you never screw anything up. And that weakness leads to never learning from your mistakes because, well, you don’t think you’ve many any.
That’s what McEnany revealed on Thursday – even if she didn’t mean to.