Bret Stephens: Donald Trump is waging war on truth itself

The man with no shame: Which makes it difficult for the media to put US president Donald Trump to shame. Picture: AP Photo
The man with no shame: Which makes it difficult for the media to put US president Donald Trump to shame. Picture: AP Photo
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Because the President has no shame, he is only too glad to participate in shaming the media when a mistake is made, says Bret Stephens

Of those from whom little is expected, much is forgiven. And of those from whom much is expected, little is forgiven. Such are the standards by which Donald Trump’s deliberate assaults on the news media need to be understood and feared.

I write this following Trump’s latest tirades against the Fourth Estate, including an early morning tweet on Tuesday denouncing “Fake News CNN” for having been “caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories.” That was followed 17 minutes later by a larger eruption, in which the president named NBC, CBS, ABC, The Washington Post and The New York Times as “all Fake News!”

And in case the message didn’t penetrate, the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, denounced the “constant barrage of fake news” from CNN and touted a video in which conservative provocateur James O’Keefe secretly filmed a CNN producer (responsible for health stories), suggesting that the network’s Russia coverage was ratings-driven.

“Whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know,” Sanders added about the video, lest there be any doubt about the White House’s standards for accuracy.

CNN’s sin is to have published a story, based on anonymous sourcing, which alleged that New York financier and Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci had ties to a Russian investment fund supposedly under investigation by the Senate.

The story failed to undergo CNN’s usual vetting procedures and was later retracted. For good measure, the three journalists behind the story resigned and the network apologised to Scaramucci, who was gracious in accepting it.

As for this White House, graciousness becomes it about as well as napalm becomes an igloo. And the president must have been relieved to have something to do with his thumbs other than twiddle them, as Mitch McConnell struggled to get a Republican majority for the Senate’s health bill.

Yet before dismissing Trump’s rants as evidence of his mental state, it’s worth taking them seriously as proof of political acumen. On Monday, Gallup released its latest annual survey on confidence in institutions: It found that confidence in the presidency had fallen since last summer, to 32 per cent from 36 per cent. That may be bad news for Trump, but it compares well against the 24 per cent confidence level in TV news and 27 per cent newspapers (although both are a bit up over a year ago). Among Republicans, just 14 per cent of respondents had confidence in TV news, and just 12 per cent in newspapers, but 60 per cent had confidence in the presidency.

If nothing else, Trump has the bully’s cunning to pick on a target more unpopular than he is. And like a bully, he knows that his mark suffers the additional weakness of being susceptible to moral reproach.Institutions with a conscience have a tendency to be weak. They set standards to which they are bound to fall short, and publicly hold themselves to account.

Preserving - even cultivating - a capacity for shame, they are easily shamed. The shameless, having none, are only too glad to participate in the shaming.

That’s why it was a mistake of CNN to let go of the three journalists - veteran reporter Thomas Frank and editors Lex Haris and Eric Lichtblau - responsible for the Scaramucci story. The political success of Trump’s assault on the press depends on his conflation of mistakes with dishonesty, of fallibility with fakery.

Assuming no dishonesties were involved in CNN’s actions, cashiering the journalists does less to uphold the network’s reputation for probity than it does to advance Trump’s work. No news organisation is going to pass an infallibility test, and advancing a perception that we should pass such a test merely sets us up for diminishing public regard. Journalistic honesty is better measured through corrections than dismissals.

That’s a lesson that bears repeating now, as the White House’s media vilification strategy comes to resemble a war on truth itself. I’ve noted elsewhere that Trump’s notion of truth is whatever he can get away with, at any given moment, for any given purpose.

No serious news organisation can stand for it, which is why this president and the press would be destined for an adversarial relationship even if their ideological leanings were more in sync. Call it the clash of epistemologies - truth as a construct of facts versus truth as a collection of wants and wishes. And never the twain shall meet.

In the meantime, the news media ought to take care not to underestimate the threat it faces from this White House. We have set ourselves up as guardians of Truth, a hard job in any circumstance, made additionally difficult by our inevitable errors in judgment and reporting, by an earnestness often mistaken for arrogance, and by our conviction that we are owed answers to whatever questions we wish to ask.

On the other side is a president who believes in none of this; who commands a following that believes in none of it; and who knows the power of holding the media accountable to its stringent standards and holding himself accountable only to his own.

How do you shame the shameless? You can’t. But you can at least deny him the right to shame you. Something to consider over at CNN.

© 2017 New York Times News Service