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After ugly White House briefing, the time is now for press to push back against Trump

Last week, I wrote a column saying maybe it was time for the press to collectively push back hard against the Trump White House.

After Tuesday’s ugly briefing with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders standing at the White House podium urging Americans to watch a piece of propaganda even she isn’t willing to vouch for in terms of its accuracy, there is no maybe about it. It’s time. It’s past time.

Will someone, anyone, step up and end these distressing displays of White House dysfunction and disregard for the obligation of the presidency to provide citizens with some sense of truthful information and accountability?

After retracting a report this week, CNN became the target of what looked like an orchestrated attack designed in part to discredit as fake news any reporting that alleges any inappropriate relationship between President Donald Trump's administration and the Russians.

During Tuesday’s briefing, Sanders took a question from a reporter for the right-wing Breitbart News platform about a CNN report on a member of Trump’s transition team and his alleged links to the ongoing Russian investigations, which the network had to retract. Three staffers resigned for their role in the report, which was based on just one anonymous source.

Sanders didn’t waste any time using the set-up to bash CNN.

“I think it's the constant barrage of fake news directed at this president that has garnered a lot of his frustration,” she said. “You point to that report. There are multiple other instances where that outlet that you referenced has been repeatedly wrong and has had to point that out or be corrected.”

She then went on to encourage “everyone” to view a video by propagandist James O'Keefe, maker of the infamous undercover video taken at the Baltimore offices of the community organizing group ACORN, that attacks CNN.

“There’s a video circulating now, whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know, but I would encourage everyone in this room and frankly everybody across the country to take a look at it,” Sanders said. “If it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism. I think that we have gone to a place where if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America.”

I don’t know if it’s accurate, but go look at it? And somehow she gets from there to a “disgrace to all media” and “dangerous place for America” in a sentence? And this is the person standing at the podium in the White House?

A mentor once told me when someone makes my head want to explode, I should stop, take a deep breath and write or say the nicest thing I can about them.

So, in that spirit, let me say of Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, that she is slightly more qualified for her job as press secretary in the White House than Chelsea Clinton was for hers as a prime-time newsmagazine correspondent making $600,000 a year for NBC News. Just slightly, though — her performance certainly hasn’t been any better. Isn’t nepotism great?

I praise Brian Karem, of The Sentinel Newspapers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, for calling Sanders out during the briefing for her irresponsible rhetoric. He offered some of the press solidarity that I suggested might be needed in my column last week.

But, in truth, I don’t think he did it in a way that’s likely to win many people who don’t like the press to his side.

“We’re here to ask you questions. You’re here to provide the answers," he told Sanders. “And what you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country who look at it and say, ‘See, once again, the president is right and everybody else out here is fake media’ And everybody out here is only trying to do their job."

It would have been more effective to acknowledge that Sanders clearly has a right to defend the president and try to set the record straight when he thinks he has been wronged — but not to urge people to watch attack videos that might or might not contain lies. You don’t use the White House to spread disinformation.

Look, CNN made a huge mistake in publishing a report based on just one source — a huge mistake. I don’t have enough inside information yet to know what went wrong. But I do know if you are going to try to run with the big dogs of investigative reporting at The New York Times or the Washington Post, as CNN has been trying to do, you better have an established infrastructure in place that rewards great editors as much or more than it does star reporters and presenters. And that’s not the way TV news generally operates.

Great reporters push to get published, while great editors push back to make sure the work is properly vetted before it gets published. They are two very different ways of seeing the job.

CNN opened the door with its mistake for the kind of assault Team Trump is now launching on it via Breitbart, Fox News, O’Keefe's Project Veritas and various talk radio hosts. Sean Hannity was going crazy on Fox News as only Hannity can in his attack on CNN and its president, Jeff Zucker, on Tuesday night.

This is going to get nastier before it gets better — if ever it gets better. CNN has the grit to weather this attack, I think.

But it should not have to go it alone. It is time for someone like the White House Correspondents’ Association to step up and tell the administration enough is enough, no matter what the short-term cost.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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