As Kellyanne Conway's credibility wanes, what should TV news shows do?

MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' says it no longer invites Ms. Conway for interviews because of questions about her credibility. But is shunning the presidential advisor the best way to challenge 'alternative facts'?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway answers questions during a network television interview in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.

Kellyanne Conway presents a dilemma for news talk shows.

The counselor to President Trump has often acted as his translator for audiences, explaining the rationale behind his words and actions while also providing a boost to TV ratings and frequent viral moments. But her credibility also appears to be dissipating.

In the administration’s first 26 days, Ms. Conway has called falsehoods "alternative facts," cited a "Bowling Green massacre" that never happened, and said former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had the "full confidence" of the president, only to be contradicted an hour later by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

Now, the anchors of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” say they “will not interview her,” with other shows' hosts telling Politico they will follow suit.

The debate within news organizations on whether to give Conway a stage highlights important questions about the media's role in discerning and disseminating truth, and some say, the morality of propaganda - or "alternative facts" - in a democracy. 

Some pundits argue the Conway controversy is simply evidence of a disorganized White House with too many messengers and without a clear message – a problem faced by previous presidencies, including Bill Clinton's. 

Others suggest that it's a deliberate choice by a president who likes baiting the news media. Conway, in particular, is considered a master debater and performer. She has delivered straight-faced defenses of Mr. Trump’s most outlandish statements and artfully dodged interviewers’ questions. Trump has praised some of her most controversial interviews, she has said.

The question, then, is what should the media do. Some observers and critics say audiences know politicians and their surrogates bend the truth. It’s the media’s responsibility, they say, to invite guests like Conway on, challenge them, and fact-check them in real time. Others urge talk shows to follow the example of “Morning Joe.” A guest’s purpose, they say, is to inform audiences, not confuse them. 

“The nature of the exchange between a news person and a guest on a show should be to inform the electorate of what is and is not knowable. If you have a guest that is unreliable and making statements that are false, you’re not helping your audience with what is needed in the moment,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “It may be entertaining, but it’s not helpful to audiences, and it’s not a productive use of a news outlet’s time.” 

Ever since Conway became a prominent voice within the Trump campaign, she has infuriated some reporters by dodging and derailing interviewers’ questions. But her ability to serve as a mouthpiece for the administration reached a new low on Monday, when she told MSNBC that Mr. Flynn had the “full confidence” of the president only an hour before Mr. Spicer said the White House was “evaluating the situation.” Later that evening, Flynn resigned.

It’s unclear whether Conway’s remark resulted from her own misinformation or a deliberate attempt to mislead the media. Administration officials also noted that Trump didn't fire Flynn, he resigned. 

In any case, “Morning Joe” co-anchors Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough said on Tuesday that they will no longer invite Conway for interviews.

“It’s giving people dishonesty. It’s not worth the interview,” said Ms. Brzezinski. “She goes out and lies, and you find out about those lies a couple hours later,” added Mr. Scarborough.

MSNBC says it has no blanket policy about a talk show guest’s credibility, giving anchors and producers flexibility to make editorial decisions. Spokespeople for NBC News, CBS News, ABC News, and CNN did not reply to questions from The Christian Science Monitor about how they plan to respond to questions about Conway’s credibility or future appearances.

But CNN has declined to have Conway on the air before. After Conway cited a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Ky., that never happened, CNN declined to have her on as a guest on its Sunday morning talk shows two weeks ago. The decision, in part, was because the Trump administration offered her instead of Vice President Mike Pence. But it also was the result of what the network told the New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg were “serious questions about her credibility.

But CNN walked back its decision a few days later, with Conway appearing on “The Lead with Jake Tapper." In a contentious, 25-minute interview, Conway criticized the media for sloppy reporting, but said it was unfair to label CNN as “fake news.” She also apologized for criticizing the media for not covering the non-existent "Bowling Green Massacre." Mr. Tapper’s performance was praised by those wanting a more aggressive approach to fact-checking the Trump team.

An interview by the “Today Show’s” Matt Lauer on Tuesday earned the anchor similar praise on social media as his interview went viral.

In some ways, Conway represents Trump’s war with the media, writes Michael Wolff in a January profile of Conway for The Hollywood Reporter.

“If he is to continue his war – Kellyanne Conway will be both his general and, likely, his cannon fodder,” writes Mr. Wolff. “Hers is an artful technique and a consummate piece of showmanship, of staying out of the corner of either/or (with anchor after anchor demanding of her, "This isn't true, is it?"), of recasting any attack as ad hominem, of shifting the question to what she can easily defend and of making the media reality seem petty and gotcha,” he adds.  

Seth Gannon, a former champion debater and coach at Speech Labs, told Vox that Conway “masterfully redirects key terms and concepts, preys on interviewers’ politeness, and displays an almost ‘postmodern’ ability to recreate reality in order to trip up her interviewer and paint Trump in the best possible light.”

But many media observers agree with calls to keep Conway off the air because, they say, her waning credibility is not only confusing, but distracting.

“Given the dangerous times we live in, the significance and magnitude of the issues we must confront, the polarization of this nation across all categories – gender, age, income, and certainly race – I think this kind of punch, counter-punch communication strategy is not very helpful,” says Robert Denton, chair of the communications department at Virginia Tech University. “When you go from candidate to governing, when the eyes of the world are watching you, [Trump] needs to be more sensitive to his audience.”

Dr. Denton and others point to the White House’s need for a clear communication strategy. A presidential administration that effectively communicates to the electorate has one speaker and one message, they say. The Trump administration has Conway, Spicer, and Stephen Miller all speaking on behalf of the president.

Other presidencies have made this mistake before, says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. When Bill Clinton first took office, his administration lacked a communication director, instead relying on officials like George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers.

“I thought that part of the problem with the White House was there were too many people responsible for talking to the press,” Ms. Myers told PBS’s “Frontline" in 2000. “It wasn't that there weren't enough, there were too many.”

But perhaps it's a deliberate choice by the new president. Trump’s management style is to bring competing power centers together as a way to surface new and creative ideas, people who have studied his business practices told the Monitor’s Linda Feldmann.

Conway also told Mr. Wolff that Trump’s two favorite series of interviews were her “alternative facts” interview with Chuck Todd and subsequent talk shows and her head-to-head with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on the much-disputed Russian dossier.

The Trump administration's media tactics emphasize subjectivity, not truth, in a strategy reminiscent of the tobacco and fossil fuel industry’s promotion of alternative facts – as well as a Russian media strategy, writes Steven Waldman for the Washington Monthly.

“By generating fictional articles, they created confusion about what stories were true and what sources were reliable,” writes Mr. Waldman. “A former Ambassador to Russia, Michael A. McFaul, explained, ‘They don’t try to win the argument. It’s to make everything seem relative.’”

And some argue American audiences understand this relativity. In other words, writes syndicated conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, viewers know politicians bend the truth.

“The Fourth Estate priesthood thinks viewers can’t see through Conway’s spin, so they must be protected from it. It’s a compliment to Conway and her skills, and an admission of incompetence by the press,” writes Mr. Goldberg. “Here’s a news flash for the news industry: Birds are gonna fly, fish are gonna swim, and politicians are gonna lie.”

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