Giuliani’s ‘truth isn’t truth’ gaffe was a howler. But it was also taken out of context.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing reporters and pundits love more than a mind-boggling gaffe. Rudy Giuliani achieved what you might call Gaffe Apotheosis on Sunday when he lectured Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth.”So let’s savor it, make memes out of it (Todd told us we should!), and throw it in the faces of President Trump’s allies whenever they repeat the falsehoods that spew forth from this administration. But let’s not pretend we don’t understand the perfectly reasonable point that Giuliani was trying to make.

As is the case with many political gaffes, the full effect of Giuliani’s howler depends on taking it out of context. The former New York mayor, now a member of Trump’s legal team, was asked by “Meet the Press” host Todd why the president won’t simply sit down and answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller.

“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani responded. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”

Todd: “Truth is truth.”

Giuliani: “No, it isn’t. Truth isn’t truth.”

Giuliani knew instantly that he had stepped in a big, steaming pile, and he tried ineffectively to push back. The damage was done. But think about what Giuliani was saying: If Trump answers questions under oath, he’ll say things that contradict what others have said under oath. And that could set up Trump for a perjury charge. Giuliani expanded on that point a short time later, arguing that if Mueller had to choose between Trump’s sworn statements and those of former FBI director James Comey, Mueller would choose Comey, whom Giuliani identified — or, should I say, derided — as “one of his best friends.”

Now, set aside our knowledge that Trump has spoken falsely more than 4,000 times since he became president, and that Giuliani has a credibility problem of his own. Giuliani was actually making sense in saying that Mueller would have to choose between competing versions of the truth, and that he might be disinclined to believe Trump. But the inartful (OK, idiotic) way he expressed himself is all we’ll remember. This is mostly Giuliani’s fault, but it’s partly the media’s as well. Because this is what we love.

Want some more examples? Before Sunday, perhaps the most memorable gaffe by a Trump official was uttered by Kellyanne Conway, who used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with the very same Chuck Todd. Appearing on Jan. 22, 2017, Conway sought to explain White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s obviously false claim that Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was the largest in history. Conway didn’t push back as hard as Giuliani did when challenged by Todd. But, later in the interview, she said Spicer was simply relying on different sources of information.

“I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” Yes, I understand that the small size of Trump’s crowd is factually beyond dispute. But Conway’s spin was reasonable, if wrong. She was not invoking Orwell.

On a more serious level, Hillary Clinton has been castigated for years over a disingenuous reading of her Benghazi testimony before a Senate hearing in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” How callous! But as PolitiFact observed in analyzing Clinton’s testimony, she continued:

It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information…. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once memorably defined a gaffe as an inadvertent statement of the truth. Sometimes, though, it’s a deliberate statement that you think won’t become public. That was the case in 2008, when Barack Obama told a group of his supporters what he thought of Clinton-leaning voters in poorer industrial cities: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Four years later, Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the electorate would vote for Obama because they “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” and “pay no income tax.” Both Obama and Romney spoke as they did because there were no reporters present, but their damaging remarks became public anyway.

For politicians and public figures, the solution to the gaffe challenge is obvious: Don’t step on your message with language that will seem clumsy, dumb, or insensitive if it’s taken out of context, as happened with Giuliani, Conway, and Clinton. And don’t speak your mind on the assumption that the media aren’t listening, as was the case with Obama and Romney. These things have a way of becoming public knowledge.

But there are lessons for the media, too. No one imagines that they should stop reporting gaffes, especially when they play out on live television. But even as Giuliani was making a mess of his interview, he was also saying something newsworthy: that Trump shouldn’t speak to Mueller for fear that he’ll be charged with perjury even if he speaks truthfully. You can agree, you can disagree, or you can denounce Giuliani’s statement as an outrageous attack on the rule of law. What the media shouldn’t do is overlook it in favor of cheap — if well-deserved — mockery.

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Obama’s choices: Making sense of The Washington Post’s big exclusive

Earlier today I did some tweeting on the bad choices that then-president Barack Obama faced over Russian meddling in the election — the major theme of The Washington Post’s astonishing exclusive. I’ve pulled my tweets into what Twitter calls a Moment. Please have a look.

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Yes, Dems should filibuster Gorsuch — even though it’s not really about Gorsuch

Judge Merrick Garland, left, meets Sen. Al Franken last March. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

You may have missed it amid the Sturm und Drang over the fate of health care, but late last week Chuck Schumer announced that Senate Democrats would filibuster President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Schumer will almost certainly fail. But it’s worth trying to stop this illegitimate nomination. And if Senate Democrats approach it in the right way, they can make an important statement about our broken system of government and what happens when only one of our major parties is willing to respect the norms and traditions that have long guided us.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Obama’s farewell address runs afoul of the first rule of Trump

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Carl Bernstein on CNN Tuesday.

The first rule of Trump: It’s always about Trump.

Thus it was that even on the night of President Barack Obama’s farewell address, the big story was CNN’s report — co-bylined by Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, no less — about compromising (and unverified) personal and financial information gathered by the Russians that could be used to blackmail the president-elect.

On our screens, a popular, largely successful, and thoroughly reassuring president was preparing to leave the White House. Behind the scenes, all was trouble and turmoil.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

A shocking breach of the First Amendment

Photo (cc) 2016 by Paul O'Brien.
Photo (cc) 2016 by Paul O’Brien.

The detention of a Canadian photojournalist at the US border is a shocking breach of the First Amendment. Ed Ou says he was stopped on October 1 as he was trying to fly to Bismarck, North Dakota, to cover the Standing Rock protests. According to the New York Times, his phones were confiscated so that authorities could look at his photos, possibly endangering the subjects of those photos.

The Obama years have not been good ones for freedom of the press, as I’ve written in the past. They’re going to get a whole lot worse under Donald Trump, with his call for upending the libel laws and with his thuggish manservant Corey Lewandowski demanding that Times executive editor Dean Baquet be locked up for publishing Trump’s partial tax returns.

The United States currently ranks 41st in press freedom, according to Reporters WIthout Borders. We could be considerably lower than that the next time the ratings are readjusted.

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The present and future of press freedom in Trump’s America

Amy Goodman. Photo (cc) via "Democracy Now!"
Amy Goodman. Photo (cc) via “Democracy Now!”

Update: The charges against Amy Goodman have been dropped.

Freedom of the press is under assault—and it’s only going to get worse in the increasingly unlikely event that Donald Trump is elected president. Three related items for your consideration:

• In Mandan, North Dakota, journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is scheduled to appear in court today after she was arrested and charged with “riot” for covering the undercovered Standing Rock demonstrations against an oil pipeline being built through Native American lands. Lizzy Ratner has a detailed report at the Nation.

As state prosecutor Ladd Erickson helpfully explains: “She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”  And: “I think she put together a piece to influence the world on her agenda, basically. That’s fine, but it doesn’t immunize her from the laws of her state.” I would like to know what North Dakota law prohibits the practice of journalism, but we’ll leave that for another day.

• In the Philadelphia Daily News, columnist Will Bunch writes that the arrest of Goodman, and the prosecutor’s contemptuous dismissal of her First Amendment rights, is a harbinger of what’s to come in Trump’s America:

It’s not happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in the Age of Trump, when you have one of the two major-party candidates for president calling the journalists who cover his campaign “scum” and “lowest people on earth,” and the as-much-as 40 percent of the American people backing his campaign are cheering him on.

• In the Washington Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan takes note of a resolution passed last week by the Committee to Protect Journalists warning that the press would be less free under a Trump presidency. As Sullivan puts it: “The idea: CPJ would make a strong statement against Donald Trump on First Amendment grounds—the kind of thing the organization had never done before. CPJ’s global mission is to try to keep journalists from being jailed or killed; but it hasn’t been involved before in politics.” (I gave a “rave” to CPJ on Beat the Press for its resolution.)

No president is especially press-friendly. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism” detailing the president’s overzealous pursuit of leakers and whistleblowers. I doubt that the woman Saturday Night Live now calls “President Hillary Clinton” will be any better than Obama.

But at a moment when our politics have gotten incredibly ugly—when a Republican headquarters in North Carolina is firebombed, and when folks at the traditionally Republican Arizona Republic are receiving death threats for endorsing Hillary Clinton—the last thing we need is a president who seems determined to whip up hate and violence against the press.

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Debate prep: How to call out a lie without calling it a lie

Lester Holt. Photo (cc) 2016 by Hermann.
Lester Holt. Photo (cc) 2016 by Hermann.

The big question going into tonight’s debate is whether moderator Lester Holt should call out blatant lies by the candidates—and especially by Donald Trump, whose relationship with the truth is tenuous, to say the least.

I don’t think it’s realistic for Holt or the moderators who come after him to act as a real-time fact-checking machine. He’ll have enough to do with keeping Trump and Hillary Clinton on track and making sure they’re both getting more or less equal time. But if someone—again, most likely Trump—tells a whopper, then Holt shouldn’t let it go. It’s all in how he does it. I’ll adopt the wisdom of my fellow Beat the Press panelists Callie Crossley and Jon Keller, who have both said that the way to do it is through tough follow-up questioning.

For instance, Candy Crowley took a lot of heat four years ago for essentially calling Mitt Romney a liar when Romney claimed that it took President Obama many days before he was willing to refer to the attack on Benghazi as “terrorism.” Given the pressures of the moment, I have no real problem with what Crowley said. But here’s what she could have said: “Governor Romney, didn’t the president refer to the attack as an ‘act of terror’ the next day?” Yes, that’s a loaded question, but it’s not an assertion, and Romney would have had an opportunity to respond.

In other words, fact-checking can be done with persistent questioning rather than by calling out BS. Even when it’s BS.

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No, the entire country has not gone Trump-crazy

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Police photo of Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabbing reporter Michelle Fields’s arm.

At a time when it seems like the entire political world has gone mad, I offer some welcome perspective this morning from E.J. Dionne:

  • President Obama’s approval rate is currently 53 percent. At a similar point in George W. Bush’s presidency, his standing had fallen to 32 percent.
  • Donald Trump’s favorability rating is a minuscule 33 percent, and just 34 percent among independents. The vast majority of his support comes from Republicans, 64 percent of whom view him favorably.

Dionne writes:

Trumpism is not sweeping the nation. It has a strong foothold only in the Republican Party, and not even all of it….

We are allowing a wildly and destructively inaccurate portrait of us as a people to dominate our imaginations and debase our thinking.

We’ve got a long way to go between now and November. As Dionne notes, the successes of Trump and Bernie Sanders “reveal the discontent of Americans who have been left out in our return to prosperity.” (Needless to say, even though both Trump and Sanders have embraced economic populism, only Sanders has managed to do so without couching it in the language of racism and violence.)

But it’s wrong to think that the entire country has gone nuts. Just part of it. And I agree with Dionne that the media could do a far better job of making that clear.

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Clinton, Obama, Libya, and the New York Times

Yes, I read all of the New York Times‘ two-parter on Hillary Clinton and Libya. Is it damaging to Clinton? It depends on your perspective regarding the use of force.

On the one hand, the reporting shows that Clinton pushed hard to get us involved despite President Obama’s misgivings, thus helping to create the current disastrous situation. On the other hand, you could argue that the disaster flows directly from Obama’s tentativeness—letting himself be dragged into a conflict he didn’t want and then refusing to do what was needed to ensure stability.

For all the outstanding work the Times has done, I suspect that this won’t move anyone’s needle. If you’re a supporter of Clinton’s muscular approach to foreign policy, you’ll think this vindicates her. If you’re more inclined toward Obama’s non-interventionism (as I am), you’ll wonder why the president didn’t say no right from the start.

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Your Saturday media round-up

No, not the debut of a new feature. But there’s a lot going on today. So let’s get to it.

• Jason Rezaian is coming home. Rezaian, who’s a Washington Post reporter, is being released by Iran along with three other prisoners as part of a swap. Meanwhile, Iran is moving closer to compliance with the nuclear deal, and, as we know, it returned without incident a group of American sailors who had drifted into its territorial waters even as the Republican presidential candidates were calling for war or something.

What President Obama’s critics refuse to acknowledge is that Iran is complicated, factionalized, and slowly lurching toward better (not good) behavior. Obama has invested a considerable amount of his moral authority into trying to nudge along a less dangerous Iran, and his efforts are paying off.

And kudos to Post executive editor Marty Baron, who has kept the spotlight on Rezaian’s unjust imprisonment for the past year and a half.

• The routes are at the root. Boston Globe reporter Mark Arsenault today has the most thorough examination yet of what went wrong with the Globe‘s home-delivery system when it switched vendors at the end of December. Arsenault takes a tough look at the decisions made by the paper’s business executives, who clearly did not do enough vetting of the plans put together by the new vendor, ACI Media Group. And he opens with Globe publisher John Henry amid thousands of undelivered papers at the Newton distribution center, sending a message that, yes, the owner is engaged.

As has been reported previously, but not in as much detail as Arsenault offers, ACI’s routes just didn’t make sense. And what looked like a mere glitch at the end of day one turned into a catastrophe as drivers walked off the job once they realized there was no way they could make their appointed rounds.

It’s the Globe itself that has to take primary responsibility, of course. But based on Arsenault’s report, ACI officials—who did not speak to him—clearly sold the Globe a bill of goods. If ACI has a different perspective on what happened, we’d like to hear it soon.

• Digital First workers revolt. Employees at Digital First Media are fighting for their first raise in seven to 10 years, according to an announcement by workers represented by the Newspaper Guild. These folks have been abused for years by bad ownership as hedge funds have sought to cash in.

The effort covers some 1,000 Guild members. It’s unclear whether employees at non-Guild papers—including the Lowell Sun and the New Haven Register—would be helped.