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If Kellyanne Conway Denies Facts, The Media Should Deny Her Airtime

The most effective way to deal with unreliable sources, writes Steve Almond, is to keep them from polluting the airwaves. Pictured: Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway gets ready to speak live on television outside the White House, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)closemore
The most effective way to deal with unreliable sources, writes Steve Almond, is to keep them from polluting the airwaves. Pictured: Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway gets ready to speak live on television outside the White House, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
COMMENTARY

There’s been lots of anguished discussion over the past fortnight about how journalists should cover the new administration.

And it’s a crucial question, given that the Fourth Estate serves as the people’s representative in Washington. It makes sure that our leaders adhere to the rule of law and to the Constitution, and that they don’t simply seek to enrich themselves and/or impose authoritarian impulses on American democracy.

While media have a duty to cover the policies and orders issued by the new administration, journalism is predicated on reporters and editors seeking out the truth. And finding the truth requires reliable sources.

...you’d think that gaslighting the American public by fabricating a terrorist attack would qualify [Conway] for a pink slip.

Think about it: If a particular source shows blatant disregard for the truth, if they have a long record of telling lies, and if they refuse to accept that such things as facts even exist, well then, you’re not dealing with a source; you're dealing with a propagandist.

Which brings us, rather unpleasantly, to Kellyanne Conway.

Conway is widely credited as having run the campaign that delivered our new president. She is also one of his senior advisors.

These are facts. They make her a powerful person. But they do not make her a reliable source.

On the contrary, Conway’s strategy on the campaign trail, and in the White House, has been to wage a war on truth.

She has never been subtle about this ambition, though she has become brazen recently. She recast the canards issued by White House spokesman Sean Spicer about the crowd size at the Inauguration as “alternative facts.”

She followed up this feat of Orwellian rhetoric by attempting to justify the administration’s mess of a Muslim ban by claiming on national television that there had been a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She also insisted, in that same interview, that the Obama administration had blocked all Iraqi refugees for six months.

Both of these statements were entirely false.

When confronted about them, Conway insisted, via Twitter (a.k.a., the president's designated media panic room), that she “misspoke one word.” She meant to say that the Iraqi terrorists based in Bowling Green had staged a massacre in Iraq. This, too, was untrue. It soon emerged that Conway had peddled this same malarky to two other journalists on previous occasions.

She lied about her own lies.

Conway claims that her own standards for accuracy are quite high. She believes, for example, that every journalist who failed to predict the success of her campaign should be fired.

So you’d think that gaslighting the American public by fabricating a terrorist attack would qualify her for a pink slip. But Conway is not going to be fired for the simple reason that her boss promotes aides who prove willing to say anything on his behalf.

He does this because his fundamental agenda is to eradicate any limits on his power, including the free press. The most effective way to do this — short of launching a direct, despotic assault — is to target truth itself. To convince people that any negative news is fake news.

The way you do this is to dispatch loyal mouthpieces such as Conway to the bright cable news studios to spread disinformation over and over again.

The new administration is using the media to do this every single day. And not just the purveyors of right-wing agitprop, but mainstream outlets.

The only way this degradation of the truth is going to stop is for self-respecting journalists to stop interviewing unreliable sources and inviting them onto their shows. CNN’s State of the Union reportedly declined to have Conway as a guest last weekend, citing concerns about her credibility.

I’m not suggesting that journalists shouldn’t seek sources from the new administration. But if those sources continually fabricate, ignore facts and deny the truth, they should be blacklisted, not invited into the green room.

Sadly, by Tuesday, CNN’s fit of integrity was over; the network had invited Conway back onto the air, where she and Jake Tapper sparred for most of the interview, with Tapper pointing out falsehood after falsehood and Conway spinning away, as she always does.

Tapper is to be praised for calling Conway out. But the most effective way to deal with unreliable sources is to keep them from polluting the airwaves. Period.

The networks, in particular, should demand that the administration dispatch advisors and spokespeople who do not willfully mislead their viewers.

Would this mean that media companies might lose a little revenue in the short term? Yeah. It would. Conway’s combative interviews make for ratings, as does the fraudulent raving of her boss.

But in the long run, you can’t call out an administration for peddling falsehoods by giving it a platform to do so, over and over. At that point, you’re not a free press. You’re a for-profit press.

Conway’s strategy on the campaign trail, and in the White House, has been to wage a war on truth.

And the truth is, there’s a great deal for journalists to cover right now. They could tell the American people about the current refugee vetting process, for instance, which is far more extreme than most Americans realize. Or about the tax cuts the GOP hopes to enact, and how they would further the divide between the rich and the poor. Or about the tolls of the administration’s roll-back of environmental regulations.

In the long-term, refusing to give attention to those incapable of speaking honestly may be the only thing that can stop this new administration. Because, in the end, our new president and his underlings are obsessed with media attention. They need it like they need oxygen.

If journalists want to defend the truth and derail fake news, they should investigate the new regime’s policies and let proven propagandists such as Conway suffocate.

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Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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