Last week, editors and reporters at CNN made a serious mistake. They reported, incorrectly, that a hedge-fund manager and Trump ally by the name of Anthony Scaramucci had been linked to a shady Russian investment fund being investigated by Congress.
Upon learning of its mistake, CNN fully retracted the story. It publicly apologized to Scaramucci, who graciously accepted it. The three top journalists responsible for the mistake were forced to resign from CNN, and their careers will be permanently damaged. CNN also instituted policies to ensure against a recurrence. In short, they took every step possible to correct their mistake.
That’s what you do when you care, really care, about getting it right. I know, because I’ve had to do it myself, if on a lesser scale. I’ve had to call a subject of a story that I had written to apologize for getting something important wrong that unfairly tainted his reputation. I’ve had to write that retraction. I can tell you that it makes you heartsick for weeks, heartsick not because of the apology or retraction or because you feel sorry for yourself, but heartsick because you got it wrong, because you made a mistake and someone innocent suffered as a result.
It’s called being responsible, and accountable.
CNN’s mistake is now being cited by President Trump, his administration and certain conservative media organs as proof that the media in general and CNN in particular are “fake news” outlets, that they are intent on spreading falsehoods about the president. At a White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put on a particularly impressive display of sanctimony and victimhood, lecturing the media and CNN on the importance of honesty and accuracy.
It’s worth noting that Sanders’ performance came in the first press briefing in a week that the White House allowed to be recorded by TV cameras. That’s because, in the first six months of this administration, the unblinking eye of the camera had caught Sanders and her boss, Sean Spicer, trying to defend so many blatant, obvious lies from behind that podium that their performances had become pop-art touchstones in the art of hapless lying. The administration clearly hopes that with no camera and no audiotape to document the scene, they can continue to lie and bluster and try to intimidate while leaving no evidence of their shamelessness.
However, if we’re going to have a public discussion about truth and accuracy — and we absolutely need such a discussion — then let’s begin by proposing one critically important test of sincerity: If you care about truth, honesty and accuracy, then you will correct yourself when you make a mistake, as we all do from time to time. If necessary, you will apologize, as CNN did to Scaramucci.
If you refuse to correct yourself, if you take pride in saying outrageous, untrue things without ever apologizing, then you have no ground on which to attack the veracity and reputation of others.
So where’s Trump’s retraction and apology to the father of Ted Cruz, whom Trump publicly accused of helping to assassinate JFK? Where’s the retraction and apology to Barack Obama, both for the birther nonsense that Trump rode to the GOP nomination and for the claim that Obama had wiretapped the Trump campaign. The heads of the CIA, FBI and NSA have all testified that no such wiretaps occurred.
Where’s the apology for claiming that 3 million illegal immigrants voted in the last election, a claim that if true would undermine the basic legitimacy of our democracy? Where’s the apology to Trump followers who believed him when he promised them that he would never cut Medicaid, that he would vastly boost funding for addiction treatment for those caught in the opioid epidemic. When is Sanders herself going to apologize to James Comey for falsely claiming that the rank-and-file FBI were happy to see Comey fired, when in fact the opposite was true?
I’ve seen, read and heard the excuses, the claims that all politicians lie and that Trump is no different. But of course Trump is different.
Politicians of all stripes and ideologies will exaggerate, evade and make promises that they know they might not be able to keep. They will tell voters what the voters want to hear, instead of what they need to hear, because politicians who tell voters what they need to hear tend to have short careers. And yes, if the stakes are high enough, and if they think they can do so without being caught, some politicians will outright lie.
Trump is different in part because he doesn’t care whether he gets caught, because by then he will be on to his next lie. He will say whatever gains him a momentary advantage, without compunction, and as a result he lives in a world in which truth does not exist, in which he creates reality and then stomps his feet like a small child, demanding that his reality be respected. One of his first acts as president was to send Spicer into the briefing room to insist, contrary to all evidence, that the crowd at his inaugural had been much larger than Obama’s, and to attack any media member who dared to point out the obvious. The tone hasn’t changed since.
Trump lies as a way of daring his followers to disbelieve him, as a form of loyalty test. In fact, he lies less like a politician and more like a cult leader.
In their 2006 book “Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships,” Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias describe how cult leaders lie as a means of destroying even the concept of truth.
“They are extremely convincing, forceful in the expression of their views, and talented at passing lie detector tests. For them, objective truth does not exist — truth is whatever will help them reach their needs. This type of opportunism is the most difficult to understand for those who are not sociopaths. For this reason followers are likely to invent or go along with all kinds of explanations or rationales for apparent inconsistencies in behavior: ‘I know my guru must have had good reason for doing this” or “He did it because he loves me — even though it hurts.’”¹
As Trump proudly put it, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, ok? It’s, like, incredible.” And he’s right, it is indeed incredible. It’s incredible to watch a man who has shown no respect for truth whatsoever complain when others dare to call him on his lies. It is even more incredible to watch other people obediently fall for the act.
¹ Joe Navarro, a 25-year agent and behavioral analyst for the FBI, has compiled his own list of 50 traits common to cult leaders. It’s an interesting read.