The following article by Kurt Eichenwald was posted on the Newsweek website February 7, 2017:
Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, wants the press and the public to stop commenting on her citation of the fictitious “Bowling Green Massacre” to justify the travel ban from seven majority-Muslim countries.
In fact, the most important piece of the Conway statement has been lost amid the ridicule and jaw-dropping disbelief that a White House official believed in a nonexistent mass slaughter and used it to justify an unprecedented policy. Conway’s full comment is one of the starkest revelations to date to explain the childish, dishonest, incompetent and authoritarian behavior of White House officials in communicating with the public, a reality that ultimately puts this administration at risk of self-destruction.
Conway’s full comment, which she uttered on MSNBC’s program Hardball, was this: “I bet it’s brand-new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre.” As Conway told the show’s host, Chris Matthew, “Most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered.”
Forget for a moment the fictitious “six-month ban.” In just 50 words, Conway revealed the otherworldly, fevered mindset that infested the Trump campaign and is now percolating in the Trump White House. This person, a senior adviser to the president of the United States, is stating that the American news media would not have reported on every element of a mass slaughter by Muslims—from the attack itself to the government’s reaction—out of some bizarre conspiracy to either defend Islamic attackers or to support Barack Obama.
This was no slip of the tongue. Trump thinks the same thing: that the media is conspiring to hide Islamists’ attacks from the world. On Monday, Trump said that the strikes had gotten so bad that “it’s not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it.” Then he added, “They have their reasons, and you understand that.”
What world do these people live in? Do they actually believe there are attacks that the media—for some bizarre reason—refuse to report? Or is this once again just stuff they say, without worrying about truth? Are Trump and Conway trying to imply that the reporters—the ones who risk their lives running into the devastation, covering the wars, sometimes being kidnapped or killed—are rooting for the attackers?
This is a deeply unsettling time. The messages being communicated by the president and his team of either the ignorant or the lying are this: The entire American electoral system is rigged, with millions of fraudulent votes being cast for Democrats in a year when Republicans scored victory after victory. Any information reported that doesn’t agree with the opinions from the White House is “fake news.” And there are also big, secret events that the media isn’t reporting because…reasons. Uncomfortable news is false, reality is hidden, voting is rigged. It is hard to imagine a greater assault on the foundations of our democracy than the promulgation of this three-pronged invitation into government-controlled, Soviet-style illusion.
Unfortunately, this is the natural outgrowth of the argument conservatives have been spinning for decades about media bias, and now no conspiracy theory seems too absurd. (Is there bias? On social issues, probably, since so much of the national news comes from reporters who tend to be less religious than those in more conservative parts of the country, and who live in big cities, working and living with segments of society that might not be as prevalent elsewhere. But the media broke the Clinton email story, Whitewater and a host of other scandals in Democratic administrations. Reporters want the lead story, the important one that will have a lasting impact, and will go after either political party to get it.)
What do Trump and Conway read or watch that led them to believe that the American news media ignores responses to attacks? Going back to the Bowling Green example, how exactly would it have helped Obama by pretending he did nothing in response to a massacre? (As for the massacre statement, Conway is now lying that she made a single slip of the tongue in the Hardball interview; in fact, she said the same thing about the imaginary “Bowling Green massacre” before that, in an interview with Cosmopolitan and in another one with TMZ.)
This mindset has evolved over the evolution of Trump from reality-TV star and businessman to president. According to a CNN producer, the network throughout the election struggled to find Trump surrogates who wouldn’t lie and frequently had to drop those who repeatedly said literally anything, factual or not, to defend their positions. One tactic, though, was used relentlessly: whining. Go back and look at all of the Trump team’s statements when confronted by some difficult news regarding their candidate; the go-to response was consistently along the lines of “Why don’t you cover this same thing about Hillary” or “It’s certainly no surprise that the media is ignoring that Hillary did…”
When Trump was caught on tape making his “pussy grabber” comments, these people actually complained that no one was pointing out that Bill Clinton was caught in an affair almost two decades ago. The fact that the recording was new information about a man who was running for president—while the second was the topic of impeachment proceedings, TV news broadcasts and books about a man who can never be president again—did nothing to counter the irrational comparison.
The relentless, childish message from the White House playground has been this: “That’s not fair.” Trump complains about Saturday Night Live, saying its portrayal of him is not fair. (When did fairness become an element of satire?) CNN isn’t fair. The New York Times isn’t fair. The Washington Post isn’t fair. Any publication or TV show that reports demonstrable facts isn’t fair.
The second whine from our kindergarten debaters is, essentially, “Billy did it first.” During the campaign, the nyah-nyah finger-pointing was at Hillary Clinton, and it took some time after the election for Trump and his team to let go of that reflexive argument. Now it’s about Obama. (Ultimately, the self-pity party is a two-part argument: It’s not fair to report this negatively because Obama did it first.)
Take the bogus Bowling Green massacre story, with the underlying wailing about how the evil, evil press didn’t report that Obama banned Muslims from Iraq afterward. The horrifying question: Is Conway just a liar, or is she so uninformed that she doesn’t know everything she said was untrue?
Obama never imposed a ban. Yes, when there was an investigation of a possible plot involving Iraqi nationalists living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the administration adopted stricter rules for issuing visas for people traveling from Iraq. The review process was more comprehensive. People with legitimate visas weren’t stopped in the American airports and shipped back to Iraq; families weren’t torn apart. Yes, the order tapped the brakes on the issuance of visas, meaning the number of Iraqis coming to the United States slowed down, but it never stopped.
The more shocking comments about the Obama action came from Trump. He claimed in a printed statement that Obama banned visas for refugees for six months. That the president is so ignorant of immigration procedures while simultaneously issuing orders on immigration is stunning. Obama could not have banned visas for refugees because refugees don’t travel on visas. That is about as basic a fact in immigration as there is, and not only did Trump not know it but his staff actually typed it up and sent it out to the press, either with no knowledge that their statement was contrary to law or in an attempt to deceive the public. And they spewed their ignorance or mendacity time and again on television. No wonder CNN has essentially banned Conway from appearing on its programs; viewers gain no benefit by listening to someone vomit up fantasies.
Dealing with the amateurs in the White House press operation is no easier. I have written innumerable articles about Trump; the responses I receive are either none at all, falsehoods or insults. A couple of times, out of frustration at the inability of Trump’s press team to act in a professional—or even adult—manner, I have been forced to call executives I know at the Trump Organization. Twice, with reasonable, fact-based and slogan-free responses, they provided answers to questions that resulted in me dropping or revising the stories. That’s the way it is supposed to work.
It doesn’t work like that with the White House. I recently asked a question based on some documents and received a response from a spokeswoman, Hope Hicks. She ended her email with the words “Your reporting, per usual, is wrong.” But the documents contradicted her answer. In case there were other records, I asked her how and where she obtained her information that were counter to the records. Plus, I told her that I was eager to correct any errors in my articles and that she should let me know what they were. No response ever came.
This method of dealing with the press is long-term suicide. Fighting every skirmish as if it were a nuclear war destroys credibility and the chance that organizations—be they government or business—get to wave reporters off of a story that is, in fact, incorrect. Reporters don’t tend to contact press officials to get a statement about what they plan to print no matter what; often, we are asking for facts that might tell us where the article might be off base. But persuading reporters to consider that guidance requires a long-term buildup of credibility. That means that the press people or senior officials acknowledge the bad news, even as they try to spin it. The officials have to accept they might lose some battles in the process of establishing their credibility, but they will gain an asset that might prove invaluable in the future.
A great example: Sean Spicer has expended almost all of the credibility he ever had in just two weeks as White House press secretary. He slammed reporters for calling the travel ban a ban just because Spicer and Trump had both called it a ban. The right way to defend Trump’s failure to mention Jews in the annual presidential statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day would have been just to acknowledge the slipup and apologize. (Trump had been in office for only eight days at the time; an error amid the tumult of taking over the White House would have been unsurprising.)
Instead, Spicer made everything worse by defending the indefensible, lying that the statement had been “widely praised” and saying Trump deserved credit because he “went out of his way to recognize the Holocaust.” And with that, Spicer pulled a hat-trick: He lost more credibility, doubled down on the original error that emboldened Holocaust deniers, and—in praising Trump for bothering to issue the annual statement—communicated that the president didn’t really consider the slaughter of 6 million people all that important. In other words, by defending something small, Spicer made the error of press officer incompetence that has damaged plenty of other institutions in the past.
Probably the best example I saw in my career was with the investment company First Boston, a once-venerable outfit that no longer exists—and there is little doubt that the self-inflicted destruction of its credibility played a role. At one point, the company was led by an executive who constantly led reporters astray with false tales. His chief public relations executive was a marketing official who never understood that there was a difference between talking up the company and speaking to the press. Reporter after reporter was waived off of true stories, and they assumed that a company of First Boston’s caliber wouldn’t be foolish enough to lie (which is not the same as spinning ugly facts to put them in a less harsh light).
Then came the day when rumors hit the market that First Boston was on the verge of collapse because of a lousy investment deal. The stock plummeted as article after article appeared reporting the rumors. (I didn’t.) I received a desperate phone call from the public relations office asking what was happening, and why articles about rumors were being published. The answer was simple: First Boston had lied so many times—sometimes to the detriment of reporters’ reputations—that no one was going to listen to it. I told the official that, from the best I could tell, the rumors were not true, but there was no way I was going to print that: There was no one at First Boston I would trust to confirm my belief.
There was another business just like First Boston when it came to deceiving the press: the Trump Organization. Donald Trump lied to the press with the alacrity of a dog running for dinner. Early in my career, when I caught Trump in a gargantuan falsehood, I told my editor about it, thinking this was a story. But my editor shot it down—it wasn’t news, he told me, that Donald Trump was a liar.
Which brings us to President Trump and the Trump White House. Officials there have been burning through their credibility as if it was soaked in gasoline. Just because Trump spins falsehoods does not mean that his staff has to back them up. But there is no one in the White House with the wisdom, experience or maturity to recognize that someday they will need credibility in the midst of some crisis. By then, just as with First Boston, it will be too late. No one will care what the Trump team has to say, because no one will believe a word of it.