Whoever came up with the phrase “thankless job” surely anticipated Sarah Sanders’s tenure as press secretary in Donald Trump’s White House. If the estimable Mike Rowe were still producing his Disney show “Dirty Jobs” — in which he would take on dangerous and disgusting tasks, like catching poisonous snakes in pillowcases — he might think twice before taking on Sanders’s daily grind.
Sanders, privately a gracious and charming presence, entered the snake pit that is the White House press room when the president’s first spokesman, Sean Spicer, exited with a few bites on his heels. With little if any media experience — what she knew came from being the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — she summoned grit from deep in the Ozark soil and told herself somebody’s got to do this.
Unyielding boulders also occupied that landscape. First came the suspicions. She could not, it was supposed, have landed that prize job without the influence of her father. The press room showboaters — we’re looking at you, CNN’s Jim Acosta — thought they could throw her back on her heels.
The exchanges could get contentious, even ugly. In one confrontation with the insufferable Acosta, these words fell from her exasperated lips: “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess, but please don’t take my words out of context.”
Probably every previous press secretary has wanted to say that to one of these self-righteous pecksniffs. Sarah, bless her, couldn’t contain it. Both honest, hardworking reporters and everyday Americans could, while Acosta fumed, smile in sympathy for Sarah.
As she faced down the hostiles in the press room, behind her, in the Oval Office, sat a president who had broken all the rules to reach his powerful position. Those rules included how we understood proper press relations.
In addition to all his policy successes, the president’s public persona — going back to his stardom in New York’s tabloid culture — was always ingeniously self-created. But those mostly apolitical story lines almost certainly didn’t prepare him for Washington’s adversary culture. He needed a Sarah Sanders as a buffer.
One way to fight back was to plant a warning banner in front of the media quicksand and emblazon it with the phrase “fake news.”
In 1961 Daniel Boorstin, in his classic polemic “The Image,” coined “pseudo-event” to distinguish between artificial news from actual, newsworthy happenings. Six decades later, absent the scholarly status, our president has fixed our attention anew on the epistemic problem.
Fair to say, the temptation to brand unfavorable news stories as “fake” risks reaching a point of diminishing returns, putting one’s own credibility on the line. Still, in an America long suffering under a media out of step with its values, when the president fights back he shows himself in alignment with his long-ignored countrymen. Sarah Sanders proved herself an able scrapper at his side.
A few months ago, Sanders — wisely, in our view — simply stopped the press room briefings. It forced the press corps to remember that real news is seldom generated there, that no substitute exists for digging, checking sources, digging again, and producing well-sourced stories.
Some conservatives, meanwhile, have taken to pronouncing “the death of journalism.” It’s not dead. It’s morphing, in fact cycling back to the more partisan territory recognizable at the nation’s founding and for a good century afterward. Throughout its history, the practice of journalism has been more partisan than not.
In more modern times, we thought we had established best practices — indeed, a conceit of professionalism — that rested on “neutrality” and “objectivity.” Too often, even those practices masked raw partisanship.
For roughly a half-century, the pretense of impartiality covered a left-of-center worldview, often, to be charitable, produced by scribes unaware of their prejudices. Conservatives rightly complained of the “dominant liberal media,” but they fight that last war as the enemy falls apart, thanks to the internet, cable news, and talk radio.
Today, in the Trump era, hard as it might be to believe, the media have attained a state of more diversity and contention than ever. As we rewrite the political rules, so too must we refashion them for journalism.
It’s a dirty job. Sarah’s successor may not rid the isle of snakes, but they will certainly need to put on the armor of a gladiator.
Martha Boneta is a farmer and executive vice president of Vote America First. K. E. Grubbs Jr. served as communications director for former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and has held many posts as an editor and publisher of newspapers and magazines, including as director of the National Journalism Center.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.