Hey! Remember Sean Spicer? He just wrote a book.
Spicer was President Donald Trump’s first press secretary before resigning just 182 days into the administration. He became a bit notorious for his poor word choices (he accidentally called concentration camps “Holocaust centers“) and easily debunked lies (such as his claim that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the “largest audience to witness an inauguration, period” or the time he defended Trump’s voter fraud claims by citing a study’s non-existent conclusion).
Since his time in the White House, news networks dashed Spicer’s hopes of landing a high-paying contributor role, he completed a Harvard Fellowship that led one student to publicly call for the end of the program in its current form, he showed up at the Emmys for a tongue-in-cheek joke about his crowd size lie, and has started developing his own TV talk show to pitch to networks.
Media figures could press Spicer on so much during his book tour. But for the most part, they haven’t.
NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly allowed Spicer to sidestep a tricky question about Paul Manafort, who ran the Trump campaign for three months during the summer of 2016 and is credited with selecting Mike Pence as Trump’s running mate. When it started to become clear that Manafort — who was indicted on a number of charges — was about to find himself in some legal hot water, Spicer claimed that Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.” Despite this being untrue, Kelly pivoted away from Manafort-related questions as Spicer stumbled.
Fox Business host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery asked, “How important is the book to changing the perception and the legacy that you have right now?” This allowed Spicer the chance to play up its importance as a “behind-the-scenes” look at the Trump White House.
Of the three, Kelly’s interview was probably the hardest-hitting, which is … not great.
American journalists could learn a lot from how BBC Newsnight‘s Emily Maitlis handled her interview with Spicer.
Spicer tried to brush off a question about his crowd-size claim. But unlike other interviewers, who let Spicer downplay its importance, Maitlis wasn’t having it.
“It was the start of the most corrosive culture,” Maitlis fired back. “You played with the truth. You led us down a dangerous path. You have corrupted discourse for the entire world by going along with these lies.”
In continuing to press the issue, Maitlis was able to get a bit of actual news out of Spicer: He seemed to believe that because the campaign felt like it had been treated unfairly by the press, that telling a lie — though he refuses to admit it’s a lie — was justified.
Spicer explained his reasoning:
“We had faced a press corps that was constantly undermining our ability in the campaign to run an effective ground game, an effective data operation. Everyone was saying ‘Yours isn’t good enough. Hillary Clinton’s running a better operation, is a better candidate and campaign. There’s no way that you can compete with her.’ Time and time again, through the campaign, we heard that. Then we heard similar kind of things during the transition. … And so, if you constantly feel under attack, then you feel at some point you need to respond and say ‘Enough of this.’ And when you hear the president and other supporters constantly see this narrative where we are being maligned and undermined and maligned in terms of the validity of our thing, it wears on you.“
That’s a pretty big admission! Deciding whether or not a government official should tell the truth shouldn’t depend on whether or not they’re happy with “the narrative” they see playing out in the media.
Maitlis is right — that is a dangerous path, and it’s not something that should be rewarded with lucrative book deals and TV shows.
Public officials don’t get to write and re-write their own history — or at least they shouldn’t.
Whether it’s Spicer doing chummy interviews to promote his book, Tom DeLay bouncing back from a money-laundering scandal to appear on “Dancing With the Stars,” or any of the many other examples of times where the public is asked to more or less forget the lasting effects politicians have on our lives, this really isn’t something we have to do as a culture.
There’s no law that says that every former administration official is entitled to a nationally televised book tour nor that they’re even entitled to a book or TV show at all.
Serving in government is just that: service. In Spicer’s case, from that lie on his first day in the job and on, it was a disservice. If journalists must interview Spicer about his new book, they should look to Maitlis and the BBC for how to best serve their audiences.