Stop Booking Kellyanne Conway on the Sunday Shows
On Saturday morning the world awoke to a new American president, and President Trump awoke to apparently irritating news reports that the his inauguration had been sparsely attended. The Financial Times had estimated that 250,000 attended, and a side-by-side photo showing the National Mall during Obama’s 2009 inauguration vs. Trump’s visibly smaller crowd had gone viral.
That afternoon, Trump went to the Central Intelligence Agency — an organization whose very raison d’etre is getting the facts right — and asserted that “it looked like a million [to] a million and a half people” on the National Mall during his inauguration speech. Trump called the report of 250,000 people in attendance “a lie” and said the national media are “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
And a few hours later, press secretary Sean Spicer took to the podium for his first White House briefing and angrily chided the press corps for what he characterized as “deliberately false reporting” of the inaugural attendance. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said, reading from a prepared statement. Politifact rated that “Pants on Fire.” A blogpost in the conservative Weekly Standard called it “a deliberate lie.”
The next morning, Trump’s former campaign manager and now White House counselor Kellyanne Conway went on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and host Chuck Todd asked why President Trump sent Spicer out to make such a “provable falsehood” about something as insignificant as the size of the crowd at his inauguration. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” Conway answered. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.” Todd laughed. “Alternative facts are not facts,” he said. “They’re falsehoods.”
The “alternative facts” line circulated quickly on digital media and far beyond political circles. Merriam-Webster tweeted the definition of “facts.” Pop culture outlets like Entertainment Weekly and PopSugar covered the story, and the University of Tennessee sports information department listed “alternative facts” in its press notes, including one about a former basketball coach using his iPhone as a stopwatch during the 1966–67 season. By Sunday evening, someone had bought AlternativeFacts.com and redirected to a New York Times article posted on Sunday afternoon.
On Monday morning, Joe Scarborough asked the question on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that every TV booker with Kellyanne Conway on speed dial should be asking themselves: “Who would actually have somebody on their show and interview them — I’m talking about from this point forward — if they’re going to come on and talk about quote ‘alternative facts’ and knowingly and willingly lie? Why would you have Kellyanne Conway on your show?”
During the latter months of 2016 when Conway was Trump’s campaign manager, news shows booked her as a guest because she spoke for the campaign. Now that she has transitioned to a purely advisory role in the Trump administration, those shows would presumably continue booking her for the same reasons they did David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett over the past eight years, that is, because she speaks on the president’s behalf and on the president’s authority.
Conway, though, brings such dishonesty and distraction with her that she doesn’t generate any news beyond the fact of the dishonesty and distraction. Rather than say anything of news value in her appearance Sunday on “Meet the Press,” she made herself the news with the “alternative facts” line and by perpetuating the false statements that President Trump and his press secretary had made the day before.
This is not a new thing for Conway. She derailed interviews repeatedly during the campaign. Two weeks ago, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, she deliberately conflated CNN with Buzzfeed to imply that CNN had released and described the contents of a 35-page dossier of salacious and unsubstantiated facts embarrassing to Trump that Buzzfeed had released and described and that CNN had not. That interview likewise had little news value beyond the fact of Conway’s dishonesty and distraction.
When Donald Trump or Sean Spicer say demonstrably false things at their own podiums, it’s news. When Trump or Spicer say demonstrably false things in interviews, they’re doing so as empowered, official representatives of the United States government. When Conway does the same — after having lost her credibility and therefore her reliability as a confidante of the president who can provide insight into his thoughts and decisions — she merely speaks for herself.
These early weeks are crucial in establishing the ground rules between the administration and the national media, and producers, reporters and editors rejecting Conway for practical, news-driven reasons would be an important signal to the Trump administration and to the public that you can’t just come on TV and lie without consequence.
This is not an issue of free speech or punishing the Trump White House. It’s about maintaining the integrity of the national media and the need for honest discourse. There are many Republicans — House and Senate leaders, governors and other Trump administration officials — who can speak for Republicans and their various constituencies on the issues of the day and provide an honest point of view.
Kellyanne Conway, as she has demonstrated over and over again, simply cannot.