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Barbershop: The Media And The White House


And now it's time for the Barbershop - that's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Today, we're going back to a subject that we face here where we work, but we think this is an interest far beyond us and our work. And the subject is the relationship between media organizations and the White House. And here, we're not talking about the abusive personal attacks on individual reporters, although that is occurring. Today, we want to focus on the question of how to report on statements coming out of the White House.

Now, this has been an issue long before President Trump took office - when, for example, he continued to question former President Obama's birthplace and thus his legitimacy for years, long after the matter should have been settled. But now the issue is how to report on and explain policy that affects the country and the world. Over the past few days, for example, the White House has said at different times that separating children is required by law, that it's the Democrats' fault, that it's not a policy at all and, most recently, that it is a policy that they can reverse. And this has opened up real disagreement, certainly within the public and even within news organizations, over how best to represent these shifting and contradictory statements.

So for more on this, we're joined now in our Washington, D.C., studios by Paul Farhi - he's media reporter at The Washington Post - and Daniel Dale, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Toronto Star. Welcome to you both. Thanks for coming in.

DANIEL DALE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And joining us from Portland, Maine, is Mary Kate Cary. She's a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs. She's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. We thought her perspective as someone who worked with and through the media on the other side, if you will, would be helpful. Mary Kate, good to have you back as well.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Paul Farhi, let's establish that political leaders have always told untruths - or at least we've - they've told untruths in our history before about war, about sex, about a lot of other things. But I'm going to ask you if you have an assessment about how truthful or untruthful this administration has been compared to others in your lifetime.

PAUL FARHI: Well, I don't think there's any comparison. I think there is plenty of fact-checking that shows that he is far, far more untruthful than predecessors. But you're right. Other presidents - all politicians - they all have said things that they - that were not true.

MARTIN: So - but then the question becomes, does this require some different language? Now, some of the Post's columnists thinks that - think that it does. For example, Colbert King said in his column yesterday, no other words for it - Trump is a bald-faced liar. But, in its news columns, the Washington Post has been very cautious, very wary about calling these untruthful statements lies, and you think that's important.

FARHI: Yes. Because what Colbert King does is write a column with opinions, and we are news people. We have a different mission. Ours is to call facts and non-facts. You could call them lies, or you could call them baseless. You could call them false. You could call them wrong - which is what we do all the time. People will get the message. This is not true.

MARTIN: Now, Daniel, you take a very different perspective. Your newspaper, the Toronto Star, seems to be going further than many other news organizations in the U.S. The Star has made it its mission to call out Trump, even going so far as to call Trump a serial liar. You say that the Star is keeping track of every false claim that Trump has made since his inauguration. Some you call lies, some you don't, but you seem to have a different standard. And the question, really, I have is, rather than going - sort of parsing the standard is, why do you think that that is important?

DALE: Because I think it is objectively true that some of Trump's false claims are also lies. I think we need to decide on a case-by-case basis. There are many cases in which, well, he may have misunderstood a particular matter of policy, for example. But, you know, last week, he claimed that when he insulted Mark Sanford, the Republican representative, in a private meeting with Republicans, there was loud applause and laughter. We know from reporting in The Washington Post and others and from the words of numerous people who were in the room that that did not happen. And so, in that kind of case, when the president is wrongly describing something that happened in front of him, I think there's no word for us to use other than lie.

MARTIN: And how and why is that in the public interest?

DALE: Because I think, as reporters, you know, we earn trust and credibility by calling things as they are. So we shouldn't jump to the word lie when it's not clear what he knew at the time. But when it is warranted, I think we should do it.

MARTIN: And Paul?

FARHI: And it's because we're not really clear what's in his head - what he is thinking, what he knows - that we can't call it a lie. A lie is when you knowingly say something that you know to be untrue. And, in this case, we don't know what's in Trump's head when he's saying the things he's saying. We can say, as Daniel points out, through reporting that something is wrong, false, baseless - you name it. There's a million ways to signal that it's just not the case.

MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, let's bring you into the conversation as somebody who used to work in the White House on a communications team. We know that there have been misleading or conflicting statements. We know that there have been statements that have just been manifestly untrue. First, I want to ask you, is this an intentional strategy, or is this indicative of a lack of skill, organization? How do you read it?

CARY: Yeah, I go more with the latter than the former. I think this is part of the president's personality - being sort of impulsive, off-the-cuff, unfiltered, authentic - whatever you want to call that. And it's one of the reasons that he won, I think. The people who voted for him wanted a disrupter, and they were tired of the teleprompter, talking points, scripted stuff.

And I haven't heard of any fact-checkers at the White House in the research department. So I know there's speechwriters there because I know some of them, but I have not heard that there's a huge research operation. And that's probably coming from the top because I think he's his own White House communications director in a lot of ways.

MARTIN: And I want to ask you about something that Paul wrote about - Paul Farhi wrote about earlier this week, which is about some of the really raw relationships that seem to have developed that - particularly at the EPA press shop, where press officers are, you know, calling reporters names. In one instance, a reporter from the AP was physically removed from a public event. And I just have to ask you, have you seen anything like that? I'm sure there were reporters you would have liked to have shoved in your day, but...

CARY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But, you know, what is that about, in your view? Do you know?

CARY: No, I don't. And I'm not a fan of it, and I don't use that sort of behavior myself. I don't approve of it in other people. I do think that the contrast with the way things used to be is getting more and more striking, you know. I was thinking about the fact that there was a press conference when Marlin Fitzwater announced live that the liberation of Kuwait had begun. And I think that was probably the last time that there was breaking news at a White House press conference. And he then said, the president will speak tonight at 9 p.m. and address the country. And, as the day unfolded, it allowed us to adjust the speech.

And that's the kind of strategic use of press conferences and how things should be. And it's so far from that right now with things like this - with grabbing reporters and throwing them out or Sarah Sanders up there in sort of defensive mode the whole time. It's really quite striking how much it's changed.

MARTIN: So we're almost out of time, but before we go, I want to take a moment to remember the conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, who passed away this week at the age of 68. And, for those interested, he wrote a beautiful column two weeks ago foreshadowing this day.

For the record, he was comfortable - again, he was a columnist - he was comfortable calling Trump lies where he saw them, but he had what he called, quote-unquote, a coping technique. He - quote, "I simply viewed President Trump as the Wizard of Oz - loud and bombastic, a charlatan." He goes on to say that we should, quote, "ignore what's behind the curtain, deal with what comes out in front - the policy, the pronouncements, the actions."

So I'm going to ask the journalists here - Paul, starting with you, and, hopefully, Daniel, we'll get to you as well - does that make sense as a course of action?

FARHI: Yeah, it makes sense. But, you know, calling something a lie is satisfying to the people who dislike Trump, and we don't really need to do that insofar as saying that the things are wrong, untrue, baseless, etc. If someone is constantly being called those things, their credibility is not going to be great. And that's really the ultimate effect here - is, is his credibility in question? You bet it is.

MARTIN: Daniel, what do you think?

DALE: I think - the president one time said that the head of the Boy Scouts had called him to tell him that his controversial speech was the greatest speech ever been given to the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts later confirmed that there had been no such phone call. The president had made it up. So I think in a case like that, there's no choice but to use the word lie.

I will say, though, that I think what's most important - what's more important than the terminology debate is that Trump dishonesty is challenged frequently and all the time in news copy - that it's not relegated to fact-checkers or the weekend column or the opinion people - that in the news story where his rally is covered or the policy pronouncement is covered, reporters, whatever word they use, are saying what Trump said is not true.

MARTIN: And, Mary Kate, I want to give you the last word here. And I'm going to ask you to reflect on the - a story that moved today that suggests - in The New York Times that suggests that, in fact, the criticism of Trump actually has made his supporters like him more. And I wonder if you think that that might be true.

CARY: Yeah. No, I think that is true. And I think this is what brought us Trump, is when there's this giant disconnect between some of the people in the press and what people who are voting see. And that is what we're seeing right now - this larger division, more and more polarization in our society - and this is just one symptom of it - is seeing that the press corps, to most people, looks like it's getting more and more partisan as well. It's very frustrating to a lot of voters, I think.

MARTIN: We haven't talked about the power of imagery and pictures, and that's something that we're going to have to leave for another day. That's Mary Kate Cary. She's a senior fellow at the Miller Center, a former - a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush with us from Portland, Maine. Paul Farhi is a media critic for The Washington Post. Daniel Dale is Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Toronto Star here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you all so much for being with us.

DALE: Thank you.

FARHI: Thank you.

CARY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "SMOKE AND MIRRORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.