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Unverified Allegations And Alternative Facts

There are two contenders for the worst journalism job in the nation’s capital. One is being a White House correspondent and the other is being the presidential press secretary, who deals with those correspondents.

I visited the White House press room during my brief stint as a Washington reporter more than 30 years ago. It struck me as a terrible place to work even then, and this was back in its glory days, when big-name network correspondents like Lesley Stahl and her predecessor Robert Pierpoint of CBS called it home base. (Bob, by the way, was a lovely gentleman and a fine journalist who went out of his way to encourage me and many others of my generation.) You sit around in a cramped room all day, waiting for someone to issue a press release for you to write about, or for the press secretary to come out and tell you only the parts of the story that his bosses want you to know.

The press secretary knows that the press corps with which he works would never call him a prostitute, but only out of reluctance to gratuitously insult people who make their living as sex workers. Any respect that reporters have for the press secretary is the grudging sort you give someone you know is trying to walk a tightrope between telling you the whole truth, which is definitely not part of the job description, and flat-out lying to you, which is (usually) a quick ticket to the unemployment line because of the resulting loss of “credibility” – as if there were anything credible about this arrangement in the first place. Here you have the press, which thinks of itself as independent, housed and fed like a pet by someone whose highest job qualification is exceptional skill at “spinning” a story.

I never went back to the press room.

For a while, it looked as if the Trump administration might get rid of the press room altogether – or, more accurately, move it out of the White House to more spacious digs in a nearby office building. Reporters, who protested the move farther away from the Oval Office, were relieved when administration officials decided they could keep their White House space.

But the goodwill lasted less than 24 hours before new press secretary Sean Spicer attacked his charges for, as he put it, deliberately downplaying the size of crowds at President Trump’s swearing-in.

The journalists did no such thing. Comparative photos and abundant other evidence, such as D.C. Metro ridership statistics (which Spicer misstated), clearly showed the crowds were well below those of former President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and maybe below those attending his subsequent one as well. Crowds were also obviously far below the size of the throngs that turned up on Saturday, as Spicer was assailing the press, for the Women’s March on Washington, which was replicated in many other cities. (In keeping with this blitzkrieg against credibility, march organizers framed the events as purely pro-women’s rights rather than anti-Trump.)

By Sunday, presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway was contending on television that Spicer wasn’t lying; he was presenting “alternative facts.” This instantly brought to mind the sorry but memorable day when Richard Nixon’s unfortunate press secretary, Ron Ziegler, had to declare his own previous misstatements about Watergate “inoperative.”

NBC’s Chuck Todd quickly pointed out that facts that are “alternative” to reality are just falsehoods. Fair enough. Except that when news media report unsubstantiated nonsense from, say, a certain leaked dossier of paid opposition research – nonsense such as Trump once having supposedly paid Russian prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed while he watched – the press does not refer to those statements as lies, or even (more respectably) ignore them. It would have done so once, but not now. Now these are just “unverified allegations.”

Yesterday, a calmer Spicer clarified that “our intention is never to lie to you” in response to a question about Saturday’s tirade. At the same time, he doubled down on the claim that Trump’s inauguration was the most-viewed ever.

Trump and his team aren’t wrong when they accuse many of the media outlets represented in the White House press room of being biased, selective and unfair. They aren’t right when they make up their own nonsensical claims in response.

This situation may resolve itself in some sort of tense standoff between a hostile and occasionally aggressive press and a heavy-handed White House response. Think of the Golan Heights and you’ll get the idea. Or it may end with the Trump White House doing what no other modern administration would have even considered: closing the press shop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue altogether.

The press has a constitutional right to report and write pretty much anything it wants, but it has no constitutional right to a physical place at the president’s side. That such a space is provided is a matter of mutual accommodation. Now that Twitter and other modern tools have emerged for the White House to disseminate its version of the facts, alternative or otherwise, it is hard to see much benefit from housing a permanently hostile press on the premises.

On the other side of the story, the press doesn’t do itself any favors by sitting around all day, waiting for handouts or appearances by the press secretary so it can have something to report (or snipe at). Getting out of the White House and into the field – whether in D.C. or, one hopes, in the vast nation beyond the Beltway – could ultimately lead to some better reporting.

At least such an outcome would cut down on the herd mentality of the White House press corps as it exists today. And it would spare us all the useless spectacle of watching those unlucky enough to hold the two worst journalism jobs in Washington battle to make each other’s position the worse one.

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