I think it’s important to point out, again and again, that the mainstream media’s contrarian and equivocating reporting has created a rhetorical failure in this country in which our leaders can brazenly lie with impunity.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 7, 2017
The Washington Post journalist Amber Phillips is just one latest case in point. This week in a blog post she criticized former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for stating the obvious, which is that President Donald Trump is a liar who consistently lies. In Phillips’ view, however, the media and our leaders should be careful not to follow Sanders’ example of calling Trump out on his lies because, maybe, just maybe, Trump doesn’t even know he’s lying.
I know I risk reducing here the litany of problems of their own making faced by mainstream media outlets, but it’s hard not to see Phillips’ piece as the typical contrarian type of journalism that has brought us to this particular point of uncertainty and fear in our country’s history. Under the rhetorical formula of contemporary journalistic contrarianism, even wild lies that have been called out and proven as lies deserve some type of media redemption from great thinkers like Phillips.
It goes like this: Well, yes, Trump says untruthful things, but maybe it’s not intentional lying really and the political discourse is so extreme these days, anyway, so why increase the incivility? There you have it. The Contrarian Stance.
One has to wonder what major lie leading to some type of major authoritarian act under a Trump administration—martial law, massive illegal deportations and imprisonments, war—would make Phillips drop her equivocations and contrarianisms, or would she even drop them then? Why didn’t she spend some of her time this week writing a post demanding Trump release copies of his tax returns instead of picking on Bernie Sanders of all people?
Here’s a longer piece on the back-and-forth between Sanders and Phillips. Essentially, Sanders tweeted about Trump’s well-known lies because he’s creating awareness and is concerned about democracy. Phillips then wrote her post criticizing Sanders for his lack of civil political discourse, and then Sanders responded to Phillips with a real question without a whiff of hyperbole or personal attack because, well, that’s Trump’s style, not Sanders’ style.
So what do we do, Sanders simply asked, when the United States president is a consistent, verifiable liar? Nothing?
The entire episode shows that despite new commitments to discover and report the truth in the Trump era from such media outlets as The Washington Post and The New York Times journalists throughout the country continue to apply old rhetorical formulas to new phenomenon. This includes the he-said-she-said false comparisons between lies and real arguments and The Contrarian Stance.
What doesn’t emerge from this type of journalism are verifiable facts or a truthful center.
What is now emerging from the history and the continuation of this type of journalism are presidential authoritarianism, chaos and fear.
Sanders is right. Phillips is wrong. (No equivocation.) There’s no space for contrarianism or civil discourse on this matter. President Trump, as other prominent leaders and writers have pointed out, is a liar. The reasons for his lies are obviously calculated in a larger sense—Trump never fully corrects or even tries to correct his initial lies—in the gestures in which he manipulates his own rhetorical presence. These gestures might seem haphazard or random, or simply dismissed by Phillips or whoever as a matter of style, but at this point it’s clear that his lies are a strategy and a longtime intuitive component of his public presentation of self.
Trump has, in a few short weeks, de-centered the institution of the American presidency through his brash lies, which to name a few, include calculated fibs about the size of his election victory, the crowd attendance at his inauguration and illegal voting in this country.
How can we get ever get back to some basic center of honesty or space of verifiable facts when we now consider the integrity of that institution without some major capitulation from Trump or unless he’s driven from office through legal means. That seems unlikely on both fronts. Our president lies just like all authoritarians and despots throughout history have lied. Will it always be so now in this country?
The Republic is in danger of failing sooner than later. Journalists like Phillips, who is writing for a publication that can still make a difference, are allowing it to happen. Democracy does die in darkness as the new WaPo slogan states. It’s too bad some of their staff still won’t turn on the lights.