It’s no fun to get jerked around. You don’t have to be a reporter or an entire news media channel to get real tired real fast of listening to people not being very truthful to you time and again.
That’s how CNN must have felt this weekend when the Trump team offered White House counselor Kellyanne Conway as a guest for that network’s “State of the Union” program Sunday and the network declined to put her on. After Conway made the embarrassing mistake of citing a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky that never happened, it appears CNN decided it was through putting Conway on the air.
Strangely enough, this happened just a few days after Politico and other websites reported that the White House was freezing CNN out by refusing to send its official spokespeople and surrogates to appear as guests on that network. And of course, President Donald Trump himself has singled out CNN for harsh criticism on numerous occasions on his Twitter feed and elsewhere. This is just a nasty relationship, period.
But here’s the thing: Both sides are at fault to some degree in this situation and someone’s going to have to put on their grownup pants and figure this out. And when they do, it’ll be better for the administration, the news media, and the country.
First, let’s go through the key mistakes and immaturity on both sides. It should go without saying that the White House needs to get its facts straight and cease spreading misinformation, either intentionally or unintentionally, to the public. Now for the less naive among us who know that all administrations spin and borderline lie to the public, there is an important caveat to the simple “tell the truth” directive. That is, it’s not realistic to expect a president or any politician and his or her team to just tell the unvarnished and “unspun” truth. But it is imperative to avoid the kind of sloppiness Conway exhibited with her reference to Bowling Green and when she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s use of “alternative facts” when he pushed back at reports on the attendance at the Trump inauguration.
The irony of both those flubs is that sticking with the accepted facts would have worked just fine for the Trump team. The real Bowling Green incident, which was the case of two Iraqi refugees who abused the program and were caught trying to send weapons to al Qaeda, is indeed a good example of how our refugee program is vulnerable. The fact that those weapons were never used and no massacre occurred in that case on U.S. soil doesn’t make it irrelevant in any way. And while it does appear that the attendance for the Trump inauguration was down compared to President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural, the attendance compared to all the inaugurations of the recent past was nothing to sneeze at. In other words, Conway and Spicer snatched potential defeat from the jaws of victory by stretching the truth and presenting untruths that will forever mar their ability to discuss those specific stories credibly. The funny thing about politics is that there are indeed so many ways to spin the actual truth, that you don’t really have to make stuff up. But the Trump team did. And while there is no real evidence that the public is in some kind of enraged fury about these incidents now, it doesn’t matter. Conway and Spicer have to wield more credibility in the coming years for the good of the country. If they need a better spinmeister to figure out how to score points even against a hostile news media in the future, I’m sure there are a few dozen experts on doing just that working right now on Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley. Maybe the White House should hire them.
Now here’s what CNN and any other network or newspaper or website that has or is thinking about boycotting or simply not covering the president or his key administration spokespeople need to do: Get over it! The proper response to a White House that’s pumping out untruths isn’t to shut it out. Let the protesters do that. The news media simply doesn’t have the right to even consider a blackout on coverage of these spokespeople or the president’s tweets, or anything like that. We signed on to the duty of informing the American people what the administration is saying, whether we like it, agree with it, or believe it’s true or not.
OK, so how is this going to work exactly? The American people aren’t going to be served very well as news consumers or voters with an administration that’s not being careful with the truth and a news media that spends too much time fighting personal battles. To start, the White House needs to straighten itself out. Not to please its unfair and unreasonable critics and political opponents, but for its own ability to get anything done. Every success President Trump may have in boosting foreign investment in the U.S., jobs, or even in the war on terror will be undermined if his own spokespeople simply aren’t talking about facts. And while it’s an historic tradition for administrations to trot out less-than-lovable spokespeople to make the presidents themselves look more likable in comparison, Spicer and Conway have become punching bags that are a real liability as opposed to a helpful distraction.
CNN and the rest of the news media have a tougher job (other than sucking up the personal attacks from the president). They must work harder to fact check this administration better and do it in real time. They must find the right way to challenge the president and his spokespeople without resorting to rudeness or simply playing the part of a partisan opponent.
Indeed, this challenge is a reason why media experts like USA Today contributor Michael Wolff recently called the Trump presidency possibly the best thing that could happen to the industry. That’s because it’s likely to spur the media to work harder and dig deeper at every level. Again, that doesn’t mean simply acting as mouthpieces for the president’s political opposition. The Democrats have their own spokespeople, and frankly, the news media has been playing the role of that party’s advocate for far too long. The fawning coverage President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton received from the news media over the past eight years is an undeniable fact too. The key will be trying to find that sweet spot where the journalists challenge and analyze the Trump team in a unique and non-partisan way.
No, that won’t be easy. And it’s sad that the political beat news media will never achieve 100 percent success based on that criteria. But sad is one thing, and unacceptable is another. And a White House information team that is too sloppy or too dishonest to simply deal with and spin actual facts is unacceptable. And a news media that simply wants to close its ears and ignore that kind of a White House isn’t acceptable either.
Politicians and the news media folks have one thing in common: They’re always telling us how important it is to stay informed and vote. But unless these politicians and journalists get their acts together, and fast, those of us who really want to be informed and vote responsibly won’t have what we need to do either.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.