What kind of press do the American people want? What kind of relationship should it have with the nation’s president and his staff?
The administration’s actions over the weekend strongly suggest one set of answers, and it is to this narrow and backward notion of what the free press is for — and how it should function — that we offer an alternative view.
The relationship between the American press and the president should never be an easy one. The press and the presidency are designed to be antagonists. The press fails most when it allows itself to be in partnership with those who see themselves as its handlers.
Both parties in this tense dance are held to the same standard: to tell the truth, to be accurate, and when mistakes are made, to correct the record.
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But in two quick days since his swearing-in, President Donald Trump and his surrogates have turned this age-old set of expectations on its head.
On Saturday, during a speech at the CIA designed to mend fences with a branch of government service he had regularly impugned, Trump meandered strangely off-topic to dwell on how large his inauguration audience had been the day before and to label news reports to the contrary as false.
That initially seemed like merely a lack of focus, but it soon became clear that it was an intentional digression. Press secretary Sean Spicer called an impromptu news conference at the White House later Saturday to lecture the press corps on the “deliberately false reporting” about the size of the inauguration crowds. In doing so, he himself reeled off a string of false statements (at least one of which he has since recanted).
This was an odd amount of energy to spend on what had been a small part of the report from Friday. More important, the new administration’s claims were false. The reporting on the size of the crowd was accurate: It was much smaller than in 2009 or 2013. Clear photographs, including one taken from atop the Washington Monument at noon, showed this to be the case.
But that didn’t stop Spicer from railing against what he implied was an irresponsible and dishonest press.
Trump is free to challenge the press as he likes. But when he does, he should be on notice that the press will hold him to a very simple standard.
He will be expected to tell the truth every single time he opens his mouth. When he doesn’t, the press must be prepared to say so.