Journalists Should Stop Reporting Trump Walk Backs in Earnest

We need to change the conventions of journalism

One of the most frustrating lies in politics is the “walk back”: a politician caught in an obvious lie tells a new story to fit recently exposed evidence. Then that lie is contradicted by yet new evidence, and a new walk back begins.

The Trump administration and its allies have become proficient in this form of sequential lying on multiple fronts. Trump and his press mouthpieces told five or six different versions of his involvement in the payments to Stormy Daniels; we’ve gone from denials of Russian interference and meetings with Russian agents to insistence that the meetings weren’t technically collusion; and most recently we’ve seen comical walk-backs in which the White House says that the president really meant the opposite of what he obviously said because it was supposed to be a double negative, or that he was really saying that he wasn’t taking any more questions rather than again denying Russian interference as everyone clearly heard.

Politicians tell this sort of lie because it’s part of the well-established game: 1) a politician makes a statement, 2) the press checks on the statement, 3) if the statement proves untrue, the press asks for clarification, 4) the politician makes a new statement. In an ethical society with a more honest politics, this process is embarrassing for a politician. They can typically only get away with it a few times before they lose credibility and become a laughingstock.

But modern Republicans have lost the tether to moral decency, in large part because their base doesn’t read or watch the same journalism the rest of us do. On a day when it was revealed that Trump consigliere Michael Cohen has made a tape of him and Trump discussing illegal hush payments to Playboy model Karen McDougal, at least one primetime Fox News show failed to mention the story entirely (and not for the first time, either.)

So the ritual humiliation of the exposure and walk back has lost its humiliation for Republicans. They are happy warriors of deceit: first, tell a lie and see if it sticks. If it doesn’t stick, just tell another lie. The mainstream press will keep coming back to you for statements, and the conservative propaganda machine will either ignore the contradictions or put their best possible spin on them.

As circumstances change, press behavior should change with it. Rather than asking liars to “clarify” what they really meant once caught in a lie as if they were people of conscience and good faith, the question should instead be “why did you lie to me yesterday?” Instead of reporting the new walk-back statement in straight style, reporters should avoid catapulting the new propaganda entirely with something like this:

“The White House told yet another alternate version of the story after being caught lying on [Month][Day], but there is no reason to believe the latest statements until they can be independently verified.”

It would mean revising the relationship between the press and those they cover, switching from a presumption of belief and a necessity to report, to a presumption of disbelief pending confirmation. That would indeed be a big change, but the ethical depravity and disregard for truth of the current administration and its propagandists demand an adjustment.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.