The New War Room
Have you seen this!?! That is usually what gets clicks, right? “You have to see this to believe it!” shrieks the caption on an American Federation of Teachers Facebook video. “This” refers to a short clip of a freshly-inaugurated President Trump signing documents to formally nominate people to his Cabinet. AFT’s clip shows Trump mention Education Department nominee Betsy DeVos, look to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Speaker Paul Ryan and ask, “Education, right?” as if the president doesn’t know which department he nominated her for! The banter that follows provides the context: “Right?” refers to asking if Paul wants the ceremonial pen and McCarthy jokingly gestures to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a fierce opponent of DeVos. Like most coverage of the nascent Trump administration, this is both trivial nonsense and emblematic of a pervasive trend in politics.
Advisers have always stressed the importance of staying on-message. The best approach is to choose an important talking point to drive home each day. Bill Clinton’s political team elevated this strategy to the “war room” approach, obsessing over every minute of coverage and trying to control every piece of information relayed about their candidate. Working on this rapid-response team amounts to watching hours of cable news, C-SPAN, and even private footage provided by trackers, volunteers, and staffers that film candidate's campaign appearances. The approach is twofold: assess how well the desired message is being received and find anything that can embarrass, frustrate, or offer a powerful insight. For your candidate, highlight the good; for the opposition, amplify the bad.
But what happens when the war room takes over the newsroom?
Sarah Palin never said, “I can see Russia from my house.” Tina Fey did. 87% of Americans polled by Zogby in October 2008 didn’t know that. Mitt Romney never said he would get rid of Planned Parenthood. Nevertheless, the Obama campaign ran ads and the news media relayed their message without providing the context: he was talking about cutting federal funding. Ann Romney blames the media for her husband’s loss in 2012. Marco Rubio denounced the mainstream media as the Democrats’ “ultimate super-PAC” during a presidential debate. And, of course, the new White House literally views news outlets as “the opposition party.” “The mainstream media has not fired or terminated anyone associated with following our campaign. Look at the Twitter feeds of those people: they were outright activists of the Clinton campaign.” That is how White House chief strategist Steve Bannon puts it, and the sad truth is he’s not 100% wrong.
Liberals contest allegations of media bias. Hillary Clinton’s campaign regularly complained about coverage and some still blame news stories on John Podesta’s illegally obtained emails for her loss. Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, says FBI Director Comey announcing the reopening of an investigation into her private email server felt “like being hit with a 2x4.” Defenders of the news media will also point out that The New York Times was first to report on Clinton’s private server.
Rest assured, there are journalists that try their best to cover the news objectively, but they are outnumbered. If journalists want to complain about their loss of credibility, they ought to look in the mirror. Give them the benefit of the doubt and they’re just like us pundits - people who believe what they believe about politics, faith, and the issues of the day because of their backgrounds, knowledge, and experience. But, otherwise, one can conclude they’re just political operatives masquerading as objective truth-tellers.
The good news is the mainstream media can fix this easily: report the news. Leave the fact-checking to the fact-checkers. Report on what President Trump signs, not on what he says. Citizens, on the other hand, have to adopt skepticism in sorting through all of it. When you see a clip on Facebook, Twitter, or the nightly news, find the context, look for a transcript, and form your own opinions. Read legislation, or summaries, and always, always read past the headlines.
We need an adversarial, skeptical press that gives no one the benefit of the doubt and reports on facts. The war room is necessary to mount a successful political campaign but the fighting over narratives should be left to the people vying for power. It’s time to take the war room out of the newsroom.
You can follow the author on Twitter @CACoreyU