The divide between these two universes of information is extreme — so extreme that I sometimes find it hard to describe. That’s why I was so struck by something that John Dickerson said the other day.
I was on a panel with Dickerson, the “60 Minutes” correspondent and contributing writer to The Atlantic, when he talked about the way the discourse has changed. I don’t have a recording of the session, so I asked him to summarize the point. He replied:
“The standards of the interview have snapped. It used to be that public shame meant that people would give answers that ranged from A to D. They might not give you the God’s honest truth, but they’d be too afraid or embarrassed to go beyond D. Now many politicians have no fear. They give responses instead of answers and the range is between A and Z.”
Exactly. The range of answers used to be from “A to D” — government officials and other newsmakers would spin or deflect, but at least their answers existed in a shared reality. Not anymore. Interviews are derailed when the interviewee goes to Z by changing the subject, straight-up lying, or swerving into conspiracy theory territory.
If you think about it, this same concept applies to Trump’s tweets and on-camera comments too. He goes from A to Z multiple times a day.
To some, “A to D” might seem limiting. It may call to mind the media gatekeepers of old, who had the power to define the range of public debate on an issue. Those gates were blasted open years ago by the internet.
But I don’t think “A to D” is about gatekeeping — it’s about truthtelling.
We have words for what happens from A to D. We know how to recognize a B.S. artist. There’s certainly a long history of political lying that pre-dates Trump and his aides.
But Dickerson’s scale hits on how the dialogue has changed. X, Y and Z are another thing altogether. The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky recently argued that “it’s worse than lies:” He said “there’s no word in the English language for what Trump and co. are doing.”
Dickerson is a former moderator of “Face the Nation” on CBS, so he has first-hand experience with the scale.
He commented on the panel that when a guest goes to Y or Z, the interviewer has to spend his or her time there too. These are the portions of interviews that tend to go viral: The journalist challenges some crazy assertion or demands evidence or debunks a lie.
But the conversation is still happening at Z instead of, say, D. The audience has been dragged there too.
It happened when the Trump White House made bogus claims about the inauguration crowd size. It has happened dozens of times since. And it’s happening now as the president promotes conspiracy theories and likens a legal impeachment inquiry to an illegal “coup.”
The result: Viewers get fed up. They bemoan the broken state of American politicans. Some of them say networks like CNN shouldn’t book guests with a track record of lying in the first place. Others say interviews with administration aides are inherently newsworthy and necessary. We discussed some of this on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” vis a vis CNN’s newest pro-Trump commentator Sean Duffy.
Call it “alternative universes,” blame “alternative facts,” cite the “A to Z” scale — the upshot is the media and its audience are being dragged into this uncharted territory together.
Trump has “given us reason to doubt literally everything he’s saying” because he is “proactively lying about tiny stuff all the time,” CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale said on Sunday’s program.
Still, Dale said he tries to give Trump “the maximum benefit of the doubt.” He said news outlets should give viewers and readers all the available context for Trump’s claims — in other words, how he went from A to Z.