After his performance over the weekend, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's first full briefing on the job was an important test for the White House press corps — a test that they largely failed.
Lost amid the absurdity of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s lies at Saturday’s briefing and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s Orwellian attempts to re-brand those lies as “alternative facts” was the fact that both Spicer and Conway explicitly threatened the press’ access if they continued to call them out.
At Spicer’s first full briefing Monday afternoon, the media had the chance to answer those threats and to prove that they would not be intimidated by the Trump administration. But they failed that test miserably.
It took twenty minutes before anyone bothered to even bring up the utterly false claims. When ABC News’ Jon Karl asked Spicer if he intended to tell the truth from the podium, Spicer answered in the affirmative, promised to correct “mistakes” when he makes them, and noted that “there are many mistakes that the media make all the time.”
Then, Karl zeroed in on Spicer’s specific claims, and was met with another stream of lies:
KARL: Do you have any corrections that you would like to make, or clarifications from what you said on Saturday?
SPICER: Sure, well, ask away, Jonathan.
KARL: Well, I don’t want to relitigate the whole issue. But take, like, one issue of Metro ridership, you made a statement —
SPICER: We did, and at the time, the information that I was provided by the inaugural committee came from an outside agency that we reported on. And I think knowing what we know now, we can tell that WMATA’s numbers were different, but we were trying to provide numbers that we had been provided. That wasn’t like we made them up out of thin air.
KARL: Do you stand by your statement that was the most watched inaugural address in history?
SPICER: Sure. It was the most watched inaugural. When you look at, you look at just one network alone got 16.9 million people online. Another couple of networks, there were tens of millions of people that watched that online. Never mind the audience that was here. 31 million people watched it on television. Combine that with the tens of millions of people that watched it online, on a device. It’s unquestionable. And I don’t see any numbers that, that dispute that. When you add up attendance, viewership, total audience in terms of tablets, phones, on television, I’d love to see any information that proves that otherwise.
KARL: And then —
SPICER: Do you dispute that?
KARL: Well, I don’t want to get into numbers.
SPICER: Well, I do. I mean —
SPICER: I’m just asking saying, if you are asking me a question about my integrity, I have a right to say if you add up the network streaming numbers, Facebook, YouTube, all of the various live streamings that we have information on so far, I don’t think there is any question that, that it was the largest watched inauguration ever.
KARL: More than Ronald Reagan’s in 1981?
SPICER: I’m pretty sure that Reagan didn’t have YouTube, Facebook, or the Internet. Yeah, I think 41 million people watched his. 41 million watched his. Okay? So let’s just take the Nielsen ratings, which are 31 million, and add it to CNN, 16.9 million. That’s a little higher. So I’m just saying — I’m not — you’re asking me for numbers. There’s just two entities together.
Perhaps Karl could be forgiven for not having Googled the real viewership for Trump’s inauguration, but there were at least 70 other reporters in the room, and apparently not one of them did, either.
The fact is that, even according to the conservative Washington Times, Trump’s online inaugural audience peaked at 4.6 million through massive streaming provider Akamai Technologies, and according to CNN, their digital audience “peaked at 12:15pm during President Trump’s Inaugural address at 2.3 million concurrent streams.”
By contrast, President Obama’s inauguration drew 38 million television viewers, which exceeds Trump’s combined total, plus another 7.7 million concurrent users online. And that was in the infancy of live streaming video. CNN’s audience peaked at 1.3 million that year because they, like many other online outlets, became overloaded during Obama’s inauguration, but even then, Obama beat Trump by many millions of viewers and in-person attendees.
Not one reporter bothered to check Spicer in the interval since Saturday, or during the remaining 40 minutes of that briefing. Not one reporter pressed Spicer about Conway’s defense that Spicer was simply providing “alternative facts.”
Instead, most ingratiated themselves to Spicer with softball questions, and he ingratiated himself to them in return. Spicer broke with long-held tradition by denying the first question to The Associated Press, instead leading off with three off-brand conservative outlets, including anti-choice CBN’s Jennifer Wishon. But Spicer also spread the wealth around to other outlets in the back six rows, and they showed their gratitude with benign questions that altogether avoided the Trump press shop’s direct and overt threats over the weekend.
The utter failure of the press corps was somewhat mitigated by Spicer’s confirmation, despite himself, that resistance to Trump is having the intended effect. In response to CNN’s Jim Acosta, Spicer went on a seven-minute rant along these lines:
ACOSTA: Is it a fair criticism that you’ve got bigger fish to fry. Like, why worry about a couple of tweets about crowd size?
SPICER: Because it’s not, because that’s what I’m saying. You are minimizing the point here, Jim. It’s not about one tweet. It’s not about one picture. It’s about a constant theme. It’s about sitting here every time and being told, “No. Well, we don’t think he can do that. He’ll never accomplish that. He can’t win that, it won’t be the biggest. It’s not going to be that good. The crowds aren’t that big. He’s not that successful.” The narrative and the default narrative is always negative. And it’s demoralizing.
Spicer returned to the theme that resistance to Trump, and reporting on that resistance, is “demoralizing” to the new administration — which, if nothing else, means that those in the White House are getting the message. It also means that even though the press failed to call out Spicer’s threats and lies, they came away with the headline that Trump is saddened by his historically poor mandate. He ought to be, and no set of “alternative facts” is about to change that.