I’ve been meaning to loop back and pick up where I left off with my last post about how Donald Trump’s election as president impacts the world of political and public communication. Lord knows there’s enough subject matter to choose from. The flood of leaks coming out of Washington. Whether to call the president a liar in print. Why Sean Spicer can’t afford a suit that fits.
Sadly, my mind keeps coming back to a question that would have seemed ludicrous just a few months ago.
Does credibility matter anymore?
Time was, that would have been dismissed as a silly question. After all, most of us grew up having some version of the Ten Commandments pounded into us, including the one about not bearing false witness against our neighbors. As a Boy Scout, I quoted the scout oath and law from memory at every meeting; the first bullet point in the law was to be trustworthy. (Okay, I had to look that up just to be sure, but at least I remembered it was on the list.)
After more than four decades in journalism and public relations, I can tell you that journalists and PR practitioners alike place a high value on their personal credibility and that of the institutions they represent. In both trades, trust is fundamental.
But now comes Trump. For any other candidate, such a casual relationship with fact and truth would have been disqualifying (indeed, for Hillary Clinton, it arguably was). The political media was woefully slow to try to come to grips with Trump’s flights of fantasy, but by the end of the campaign a veritable legion of fact-checkers had run out of Pinocchios and flaming trousers in an effort to let their readers know what was happening.
He won anyway. Now he owns the bully pulpit. His every utterance (and tweet) is de facto news. As I started fiddling with this post yesterday afternoon, Trump was speaking to a military audience at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and meandered off script to accuse “the very, very dishonest press” of not reporting terrorist attacks. This morning’s New York Times devoted nearly half a page to the story.
This, of course, followed Kellyanne Conway’s now infamous “Bowling Green massacre” gaffe (which she at least had the sense to acknowledge) and Melissa McCarthy’s brutal send-up of Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Those kinds of things provide much-needed moments of comic relief for folks like me, who are admittedly still shell-shocked by the election.
But do they really matter? Does credibility matter anymore? In the post-truth era of fake news, when people apparently are entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions, will Trump and his White House pay a price for his transgressions?
In the short run, maybe not. But in the long run — and maybe even sooner rather than later — I still think it will take a heavy and ultimately decisive toll. We’re already seeing some evidence of that. Politico is out today with a brief report under this headline: “White House rattled by McCarthy’s spoof of Spicer”. (As this is being published, that story is listed as the most read at politico.com.) Social media reaction to Conway’s “Bowling Green massacre” has been epic.
But for me, the most telling moment came when the relentlessly combative Conway went on CNN and practically pleaded with Chris Cuomo in an exchange over Trump’s mocking of the disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski. Trump World and some right-wing media have gone to great lengths to dispute that view of Trump’s performance, but Cuomo was having none of it. “Why can’t you give him the benefit of the doubt?” Conway asked; seconds later, in an exchange muddled with a lot of cross-talk, she says “you should give [Trump] the deference and respect if he says [he wasn’t mocking Kovaleski]” and “you’re calling him a liar and you shouldn’t.” (You can find the exchange starting a little over nine minutes into this clip.)
To Conway’s point, presidents and indeed most elected leaders do get the “benefit of the doubt” and “deference and respect” from the media – maybe more than they deserve. Trump’s problem is that he’s squandered any right to expect that from the media. The sheer tonnage of baseless and unfounded statements from his campaign and now his White House has tipped the balance, so that now the media’s first impulse is not to trust him, but to question him. And, more often than not, they’re right to do so.
This morning, as I was trying to figure out how to close out this post – and how to answer my own opening question – a Facebook friend helpfully (and unwittingly) posted a meme with an old Edward R. Murrow quote:
“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”
I can’t do better than that. My money’s on Murrow.