Media, Maybe It’s Time to Consider a Timeout for Conway

Media, Maybe It’s Time to Consider a Timeout for Conway January 23, 2017

Chuck Todd and Kellyanne Conway on Meet the Press, January 22, 2017 (screenshot via NBC News)

Remember how I said recently that we need to fight over every grain of truth?

Well, I hope you’re ready because this weekend, the first weekend of the Trump administration, has proven that we are in for a long fight.

First, a little background in case you’ve been in a cave (or otherwise cloistered away from media of any kind): On Friday, Donald Trump was inaugurated to crowds that looked, well, smaller than what Trump has claimed and certainly smaller than President Obama’s first inauguration. When that fact was reported by media, it apparently was important enough to the Trump camp that press secretary Sean Spicer was dispatched to hold his first press appearance, in which he told demonstrable lies like calling Friday’s crowd “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.”

But perhaps no one went further than Trump’s former campaign manager and current spin doctor Kellyanne Conway, who appeared Sunday morning on Meet the Press. (You can find a transcript of the whole thing here or watch the whole horrifying 13-minute interview here, but honestly, if you don’t hate yourself, please don’t watch the damn video.)

There are a few exchanges that have already gotten widespread coverage. MTP host Chuck Todd started by asking “why President Trump chose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size.” Note that the question is not about the falsehood itself but about why Trump would want to address such a trivial (and also demonstrably false) claim at the very beginning of his term.

Conway didn’t answer that question, instead saying, “I don’t think ultimately presidents are judged by crowd sizes at their inauguration.” Which is, for the record, a completely legitimate position, but it should leave any rational human being exclaiming: Then why aren’t you telling the freaking president that?!

Todd then repeated the question:

TODD: Why put [Spicer] out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood? It’s a small thing. But the first time he confronts the public it’s a falsehood?

CONWAY: Chuck, I mean, if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great open relationship with our press. [emphasis mine]

If that bolded statement reads like a threat to you, let’s just say that you’re not the only one.

After a little sidebar about an erroneous tweet about a bust removal in the Oval Office, Todd asks his question yet again:

TODD: You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood? Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office–

CONWAY: No it doesn’t.

TODD: –on day one.

CONWAY: Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What– You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains–

TODD: Wait a minute– Alternative facts?

CONWAY: –that there’s–

TODD: Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered, the one thing he got right–

CONWAY: –hey, Chuck, why– Hey Chuck–

TODD: –was Zeke Miller [the reporter who tweeted about the bust removal]. Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods. [emphasis still mine]

There were two thoughts that I had after watching this exchange:

  1. I have never been more pleased with Chuck Todd as a journalist.
  2. If you watch Conway right before she says “alternative facts,” I think you can see her swallow her self-respect.

There’s a lot more to the interview, including Conway managing to simultaneously act like the victim of Todd’s mockery (he was clearly laughing at the absurdity of her responses) and magnanimous in letting that alleged mockery go, dodging questions about Trump and the intelligence community, and finally trying to act like the Democrats had committed some grave sin by not already confirming many of Trump’s cabinet nominees (despite rushed ethics reviews and missing disclosures).

But the takeaway meme from this interview has been “alternative facts,” and it’s not difficult to see why. After all, Trump’s ascendance has been paralleled — if not to some degree caused — by the rise of the “alt-right,” and Conway’s not exactly a person to choose her words foolishly. And let’s face it, “alternative facts” is a positively Orwellian (or at least Colbertian) turn of phrase.

So here’s my big question: Why would anyone in the media even bother giving Conway a platform after this? I understand that it really isn’t an option for the media not to cover the Trump White House; that would give them room to act without the harsh light of journalistic scrutiny. But Sunday morning shows like Meet the Press are not the same as a hard news story in the New York Times or Washington Post.

Conway’s function in the Trump adminstration is not the same as Spicer’s. Spicer is the final word, getting his direction from Trump; Conway is the cleaner. Remember, she started off this interview with Todd by suggesting that the crowd size of the inauguration isn’t even relevant, but that clearly isn’t what Trump thinks. She doesn’t have to argue the issue like Spicer has to, and because of that, she can gaslight the press by acting like they’re being ridiculous for covering what the administration obviously wants them to cover. When that gaslighting is successful, it doesn’t just frustrate the media — it delegitimizes them.

Stop letting her do that, news media. Cut her off. Conway may act as a spokesperson for the Trump administration, but she is not the official word. Make the spin come from Spicer and other official channels.

Kellyanne Conway is the kind of political communicator that represents a very real threat to the media’s ability to keep an already hostile administration accountable. Inviting her to your show is just handing her the knife that she will turn on you.

Put her in timeout already. Let her peddle her “alternative facts” Newspeak somewhere else. Those of us who value truth in journalism will thank you for it.

Screenshot via NBC News

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