Poor Sean Spicer. He must have been on top of the world on inauguration day. He had landed the highest profile media relations job on earth and was about to become one of the most famous faces in Washington. But within 24 hours and the space of five minutes and 31 seconds, the new White House Spokesman's reputation was in ruins, his credibility shot, his performance the butt of online ridicule.
As reported by the Washington Post and others, Spicer's boss, President Donald Trump was in high dudgeon over the reporting of crowd sizes at the inauguration. While Trump regularly trashes CNN, the New York Times and other leading news organizations, he also watches them incessantly and repeatedly demonstrates a thin skin to the slightest hint of criticism.
White House Communications Director Sean Spicer holds the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 2, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Never mind the small matter of taking over leadership of the free world, the new POTUS was seething at the widespread posting of pictures showing his crowds as being far smaller than Barack Obama's and ordered his mouthpiece into the press room to debunk the truth.
We can only wonder what went through Spicer's mind in the face of this assignment. Had he drunk fully and deeply of the Trumpist Kool-Ade? Did he truly believe in his heart that the 2017 inauguration crowds were the biggest ever, all evidence to the contrary? Or did he wrestle with an existential moral dilemma: to follow the president's orders and spout what he knew to be bald-faced lies, or take a stand, refuse and likely be fired on the spot?
Stephen Harper's former top communications advisor commented on twitter (in response to a tweet from George W. Bush's former spokesman) that he would have refused.
— Andrew MacDougall (@AGMacDougall) January 21, 2017
Spicer chose to do the boss's bidding. In that five minute, 31 second rambling rant, he may have surpassed Richard Nixon's spokesman Ron Ziegler in the presidential mouthpiece hall of infamy. Ziegler, at the height of the Watergate scandal, memorably told reporters that Nixon's previous, false statements were "inoperative".
But Ziegler never had to undergo the kind of twitter onslaught that swept over Spicer. Within seconds, his steaming pile of falsehoods was called out on social media, even by conservative commentators.
Categorically, demonstrably false. The new WH press secretary opens his time with a lie & takes no questions? https://t.co/WfqyBmKb92
— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) January 21, 2017
Inevitably, he became a hashtag.
— Jamie Todd Foreman (@Jamie_Foreman) January 22, 2017
Trump's counsellor Kellyanne Conway creatively compounded Spicer's misery by describing his assertions as "alternative facts", thus launching another memorable hashtag--one that has already entered the political lexicon.
— Paul Lander (@paul_lander) January 23, 2017
In the world of crisis communications, we counsel to always tell the truth, and if you cannot, just shut up. Lies inevitably will be exposed. Reputations that are already damaged will be shattered beyond repair.
I dealt with dozens of politicians' media advisors in my reporting days and while it was common to stretch credibility, not a single one ever looked me in the face to deliver a blatant falsehood. While aides and reporters must maintain a certain mutual tension and skepticism, trust is essential -- even if you despise each other.
All the president's men and women will keep lying and keep claiming victimhood and many will believe them.
But as we well know, Trump and his team have broken all the rules of media relations and gotten away with it -- so far. Spicer took a bullet for the boss and far from backing down, continues to tell howlers on a daily basis. Clearly, they do not care. Trump's unprecedented torrent of lies, ably documented by the Toronto Star's Daniel Dale and others, did not stop him from winning the White House.
The Orwellian interpretation is that it is part of a campaign to undercut the legitimacy of the so-called "mainstream media." Trump's acolytes already believe the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post and others are out to get their man and that nothing they print or broadcast should be trusted. Reporting presidential lies as lies, no matter how obvious, only feeds the narrative.
All the president's men and women will keep lying and keep claiming victimhood and many will believe them. It is no coincidence that sales of George Orwell's 1984 are spiking.
History will not likely be kind to Sean Spicer. But weep not for him. He still has his job. Save your tears for the late, lamented truth.
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