In an appearance in the White House Briefing Room on Saturday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer participated in a strange sort of interaction for which New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen struggled to find a name. Was it a briefing? An announcement? Some sort of clarification session? Hard to say! What it seemed to be was some sort of Two-Minute Hate on the media and available factual evidence that lasted well beyond the two minutes. This was supposed to be the “on time and under budget” presidency, I thought?
Anyway, it was a strange display. And ABC News’ Jonathan Karl seemed particularly hot about it on Sunday’s edition of “This Week”:
KARL: On his very first appearance in the briefing room, Sean Spicer went in there and uttered at least three things that were demonstrably false .... I think the biggest problem was that he left without taking a single question. I’ve never seen a White House press secretary do that. That said, I think that we need to be careful as reporters and as journalists not to take the bait and not to get into an endless discussion about issues that are trivial. How many people were there, the crowd size ― just not important.
“Telling the truth is absolutely important, especially from that podium,” he added, “Sean is no longer the RNC spokesperson, he’s no longer a campaign spokesperson. He’s speaking on behalf of the White House, the executive branch of the United States. Credibility matters.”
So we flash forward to Monday, Sean Spicer’s first official press conference with the White House press corps. Karl was there, armed with his “credibility matters” maxim and his “don’t get bogged down in trivia” guideline at the ready. And sure enough, he got the opportunity to ask Spicer a question.
All right, man. Like OutKast says: “Don’t pull that thang out unless you plan to bang. Don’t even bang unless you plan to hit something.”
KARL: Thanks for being here, first briefing, great to see you. Before I get to a policy question, just a question about the nature of your job. Is it your intention to always tell the truth from that podium, and will you pledge to knowingly never say something that is not factual?
Oh, man. I think you pulled that thang out without a corresponding plan to bang.
SPICER: It is. It’s an honor to do this. And, yes, I believe we have to be honest with the American people. I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts. There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out. Our intention is never to lie to you, Jonathan. Our job is to make sure ― sometimes you’re in the same boat. I mean, there are times when you guys tweet something out or write a story and you publish a correction. That doesn’t mean that you were intentionally trying to deceive readers and the American people, does it? And I think we should be afforded the same opportunity. There are times when we believe something to be true or we get something from an agency or we act in haste because the information available wasn’t complete. But our desire is to communicate with the American people and make sure you have the most complete story at the time, so we do it. Again, I think that when you look, net, we ― we’re going to do our best every time we can. I’m going to come out here and tell you the facts as I know them. If we make a mistake, we’ll do our best to correct it. As I mentioned the other day, it is a two-way street. There are many mistakes the media makes all the time. They misreport something, they don’t report something, they get a fact wrong. I don’t think that that’s always to turn around and say you were intentionally lying. I think we all try to do our best job and do it with a degree of integrity in our respective industries.
OK, that leaned a little heavy on some “both sides do it” logic, but it’s true that reporters make mistakes and make corrections, and the more important thing is that Spicer is actually conceding the point that he provided incorrect information by likening his situation to that of the press. So, time now for Karl to get to his policy question, which I’m sure he prepared for in such a way that he can detect if Spicer is telling the truth or not.
KARL: Do you have any corrections you would like to make or clarifications?
SPICER: Well, sure. ask away, Jonathan.
What are you doing, man? Don’t go in so open-ended on that. If you’ve a point in mind, make it.
KARL: For instance, I don’t want to re-litigate the whole issue, but take one, the issue of Metro ridership. You made a statement ―
SPICER: We did. At the time, the information I was provided by the inaugural committee came from an outside agency that we reported on. And I think knowing what we know now, we can tell that WMATA’s numbers were different, but we were trying to provide numbers that we had been provided. That wasn’t like we made them up out of thin air.
Just a little over 24 hours ago, Karl said, on TV: “I think that we need to be careful as reporters and as journalists not to take the bait and not to get into an endless discussion about issues that are trivial. How many people were there, the crowd size ― just not important.” I miss that guy! Where’d he go?
KARL: Do you stand by your statement that that was the most watched inaugural ―
No, no, no, don’t change the subject! “Viewership” is a much more difficult thing to measure than “attendance” or “public transportation ridership.” If you’re not careful ...
SPICER: Sure. It was the most watched inaugural. When you look at ― look, you look at just one network alone got 16.9 million people online. Another couple of the networks, there were tens of millions of people that watched that online. Never mind that the audience that was here, 31 million people watched it on television, combine that with the tens of millions of people that watched it online on a device. There’s ― it’s unquestionable. I don’t ― and I don’t see any numbers that dispute that. When you add up attendance, viewership, total audience in terms of tablets, phones, on television, I’d love to see any information that proves that otherwise. So, do you dispute that?
Sigh. If you’re not careful, Spicer is going to filibuster and turn it right back around on you.
KARL: Well, I don’t want to get into numbers.
You were the one who brought numbers up!
SPICER: Well, I do. I mean, I’m just saying if you’re asking me a question about my integrity, I have a right to say, if you add up the network streaming numbers, Facebook, YouTube, all of the various live streamings that we have information on so far, I don’t think there’s any question that it was the largest watched inauguration ever.
KARL: More than Ronald Reagan’s in 1981 ―
SPICER: I’m pretty sure that Reagan didn’t have YouTube, Facebook or the internet.
So there you have it. Reagan didn’t have YouTube. Minutes later, another reporter in the room decided to do some further pressing on this matter, and Spicer conceded that the in-attendance crowd was not as big as other inaugurations (while holding to his “most watched ever” around the globe point). So, yeah, this was a great journalistic exercise.
Oddly enough, later on in the press briefing, Spicer claimed that the way the media was treating the Trump administration had left him feeling demoralized. How is that? Spicer used to be a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. It was his job to try to demoralize the Obama White House. He knows how this works. Besides, if he’s feeling demoralized, he can literally go do anything else with his life. Teach math to Rust Belt schoolkids. Go on walkabout in the Australian outback. He’s not a hostage. No one has a gun to Spicer’s head. Least of all, Jonathan Karl.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.