Following Mueller Revelations, Journalists Weigh How to Cover a Misleading Press Secretary

Last Thursday the Department of Justice released a redacted copy of the report prepared by Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailing the findings of his nearly two-year long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Among major revelations surrounding the extent of Russian election interference and efforts by President Donald Trump to impede the investigation, the report also revealed that Press Secretary Sarah Sanders privately admitted to misleading reporters during a press conference on May 10, 2017.

Sanders, who had been tasked with defending Trump’s decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey the day before, claimed: “the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.” When pushed to substantiate her claim, Sanders said the White House had heard disapproval of Comey from “countless members of the FBI.”

During an interview with the FBI in July 2018 however, Sanders told investigators her reference to “countless” sources within the agency was a “slip of the tongue,” even though she repeated the claim during another press briefing one day later. The report also states that Sanders had recalled her statement “was not founded on anything.”

On Friday, Sanders refused to publicly acknowledge her admission to FBI investigators during an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

Asked why she would not acknowledge she had misled reporters, Sanders said she had mistakenly used the word “countless,” but stood by her claim that some members of the FBI had communicated their disapproval of Comey to the White House.

“If you look at what’s in quotations from me…it’s that it was ‘in the heat of moment,’ meaning that it wasn’t a scripted talking point. I’m sorry that I wasn’t a robot like the Democrat Party,” she added.

During an appearance on CNN last Thursday, American Urban Radio Networks’ White House correspondent April Ryan criticized Sanders for “outright” lying and said she did not have “any credibility left.”

Ryan also tweeted that “the stakes [were] too high” for Sanders to be “making up stories and lying from the White House podium.”

NBC News opinion contributor Kurt Bardella asked if reporters should trust “any statement [Sanders] gives ever again” in an op-ed published Thursday. Bardella added that Sanders has become “America’s main minister of propaganda” and wrote that “degrading the White House podium and relegating it to a propaganda pulpit smacks of a dictatorship, not a free and open society.”

Others, like Michael Barbaro, host of The New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast, asked if reporters should treat Sanders differently in light of the Mueller report’s revelation. “Does [the press] rely on her less? Remind listeners/readers/viewers she is a proven dissembler every time we quote her?” Barbaro tweeted.

Daniel Dale, a Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, said Sanders’ lack of credibility had already been established since she had been “a liar and deceiver from the start.”

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell expressed little hope that reporters would change how they approached Sanders’ increasingly infrequent press conferences, tweeting that “the press has demonstrated zero capacity to deal with Sarah Sanders” and would not “adjust in any way.”

In January, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote that Sanders’ press briefings were “exercises in futility [and] lying,” but nonetheless defended them as “necessary.” Sullivan said despite the “temptation” to discontinue the briefings, they were valuable “in showing reporters questioning power, in applying pressure, and in eliciting answers of some kind — even if those answers soon prove to be untrue.”

In January 2017, just a few days after Trump’s inauguration, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen advised news organizations to pull their correspondents from press conferences and send interns in their place.

Rosen added that in the face of the Trump administration’s efforts to vilify the press, reporters had to “become less predictable” and “stop functioning as hate object[s].”

“Rather: change the terms of this relationship. Make yourself more elusive. In the theater of resentment where you play such a crucial part, relinquish that part,” he said.

In an interview with MediaFile, Rosen said he was not surprised Sanders had refused to acknowledge her admission to investigators that her remarks were baseless.

“The Trump government has set itself against the very idea of ‘the public record,’” Rosen said. “If there’s a strategy it’s to raise the psychological cost for supporters of allowing any facts established by Mueller to register as true.

Rosen also reiterated his call for veteran White House correspondents to stop participating in press briefings and focus on other stories.

“Interns [should] hold the place until under a new government the briefing can perhaps return,” he said.

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