We're witnessing a political revolution in this country, and the press is missing this monumental shift. It’s not that journalists can’t spot the game-changing story; it’s that they’re too afraid to document it. They’re too bullied to address it forcefully.
In the Donald Trump era, lying has become an unequivocal hallmark of the Republican Party and its political strategy. It now defines the GOP, whose top officials, including the United States attorney general, lie early and often about hugely important issues. The press continues to let them get away with it because the media continues to grapple—in slow motion—with how to deal with a major political party that lies about everything. None of this is normal. But the Beltway press is doing its best to make it so.
The torrent of once-unthinkable fabrications the GOP now traffics in was highlighted this week with new revelations about Brett Kavanaugh's soiled confirmation to the United States Supreme Court last year. In order to secure his lifetime position, and facing specific and multiple and credible allegations of sexual assault, Kavanaugh lied about witnesses; he lied about corroboration; he lied about friendships; he lied about parties. He also lied about the state drinking age, vomiting, his yearbook, his accusers, and drinking. Kavanaugh lied about his grandfather, federal judges, warrantless wiretaps, and stolen emails.
"Republicans shamelessly covered for him by limiting the testimony against him to Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her in high school," Armanda Marcotte writes at Salon. "They refused to hear testimony from any other witnesses who might have been able to corroborate her account, or discuss Kavanaugh's behavior at the time."
Credit where due: HuffPost and GQ were among those outlets that published lengthy, detailed pieces last year chronicling Kavanaugh's long list of confirmation lies. But in terms of the day-to-day Beltway media coverage of the confirmation fiasco, good luck finding dispatches clearly stating that a United States Supreme Court nominee was constantly lying his way onto the bench. That kind of stark, accurate language simply wasn't allowed.
Once again, it seemed to be a case of the press being unwilling to break a longstanding etiquette tradition. In this case, it was a tradition of not identifying a Supreme Court nominee as a liar. “That's simply not done!” the traditionalists would cry. But what happens when a Supreme Court nominee, such as Kavanaugh, turns out be a compulsive liar? Is the press supposed to just look away and pretend it's not happening, thereby giving Republicans a pass, as well as allowing them to change the rules of the confirmation game? (In other words: Truth-telling is now optional?)
This is why I shake my head when observers, including some journalists, suggest that it's not important to call Trump a liar, that everybody knows that already, so what's the point, because it's not going to change his behavior, etc. That sounds like desperate rationalizing and an attempt to cover for a collective newsroom failure. The reason all this matters is that it's not just about Trump; it's about the entire Republican Party, which has effectively divorced itself from reality.
And when one of the two major political parties in America makes that leap, that's big news. It shouldn't be covered up and it shouldn't be watered down with pointless euphemisms. This is our new American reality.
That phenomenon plagued the 2016 campaign coverage, as journalists timidly refused to describe what Trump was doing—lying all the time. Here is just one example: During a Republican primary debate, candidates took aim at President Barack Obama's Syrian refugee program, and here's how the Chicago Tribune covered the GOP critiques: "Instead, several criticized Obama's plan to allow some 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. over the next year. Trump, at a rally in Beaumont, Texas, said Obama would allow 250,000 refugees in and called that idea ‘lunacy.’"
In the first sentence, the Tribune noted that Obama's plan was to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. In the second sentence, it noted that Trump didn't like Obama's plan because it would allow in 250,000 refugees. But the news article never acknowledged that Trump's figures were utterly bogus.
Having seen how the press gave Trump's lying a pass in 2016, the Republican Party soon adopted his blueprint and began proudly lying about signature legislative initiatives—not spinning, but openly lying.
Flashback to 2017, when Republicans were yet again trying to kill Obamacare, and trying to do it by offering up their own alternative: What unfolded was likely the first time we’ve seen a political party try to pass landmark social policy legislation by categorically misstating almost every key claim about the bill. No, the GOP House bill did not protect people with pre-existing conditions. It did not protect older Americans from increased insurance costs. It did not mean everyone would be charged the same for insurance. The bill wasn’t “bipartisan.” And it did not allow “for every single person to get the access to the kind of coverage that they want,” as then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price claimed. It all signaled a dangerous new age in American politics. If Republicans were willing to brazenly lie about their healthcare plan, there was no telling what the next subject of GOP fabrications would be.
That was in 2017. In 2018, Kavanaugh set another precedent and lied his way through his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and last week Trump was lying about the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. You see the thread that runs through all of that? It's a chronic and unapologetic mendacity that's unprecedented in modern politics. Telling lies about hugely important events and issues—health care, the Supreme Court, 9/11—has become utterly routine for the GOP, in part because the press so often seems paralyzed when it comes to calling it out. Because Republicans pay no public penalty for lying all the time. And if Republicans don’t get called out by the press for trafficking in fabrications, what’s the incentive for them to stop?
There is none. If the press treats the GOP’s systematic lying as nothing more than partisan spin, there’s no downside to the destructive strategy.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.