The Trump Administration has presented many challenges to the television news media, but none is quite as flagrantly bizarre as the current widely held and little-disputed fact that White House Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway can no longer be trusted on-air. Following a three-week “honeymoon” period where Conway invented a massacre, violated White House ethics rules in pimping Ivanka Trump’s clothes line on the news, and either deliberately lied or ignorantly misled the public about the president’s thinking on disgraced National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, at least one program has had enough.
Wednesday morning, Mika Brzezinski, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” unequivocally declared that Conway would no longer be a guest on the show because of longstanding and recurring credibility issues. “Every time I’ve ever seen her on television, something is askew, off or incorrect,” Brzezinksi said on-air. Joe Scarborough, her cohost, affirmed this, albeit less strongly. “I don’t even think she’s saying something she knows to be untrue.” He suggested that Conway was not lying as much as pretending to inside access that she actually doesn’t have. “She’s not in these meetings and any reporter can ask anybody in that White House and they will say the same thing.”
It’s hard to know what to make of the 50-year-old former pollster, a fanatical supporter of Trump who became famous during the campaign for her unique deployment of a finessed doublespeak that sounds like reasonable debate but is instead just obfuscation. She was so singularly frustrating even at that point that “Saturday Night Live” began lampooning her repeatedly, with MVP Kate McKinnon delivering one of the best impressions of the year as neurotic, truth-averse Conway. The adviser, for her part, has responded to criticisms about her credibility with confusing messaging. On Valentine’s Day (!) she tweeted an oblique message of undying loyalty to Trump: “I serve at the pleasure of @POTUS. His message is my message. His goals are my goals. Uninformed chatter doesn’t matter.” The implication seemed to be either that she would happily lie for the president if necessary, or that if his caprice had led to her embarrassment, it was a punishment she was willing to take on the chin.
Neither of these inspires confidence in the average news show producer. As the past three weeks have made quite clear, Conway — for whatever reason — really can’t be trusted to either offer truthful or rational insight into the White House’s decision-making or the policies that shape the nation.
The question now is what to do about it. “Morning Joe” has chosen banishment. CNN’s “State of the Union,” with anchor Jake Tapper, is proceeding more on a case-by-case basis; the last time Tapper had her on, the two talked for 25 minutes specifically about her incorrect and non-factual remarks.
There is a case to be made for her continued appearance on these shows. While Conway has a strained relationship with reality, she’s reliably revealing about the internal inconsistencies and fractured logic of the Trump administration. She is, at least for now, a member of White House senior staff; she speaks for a president that won’t even call on non-right-wing publications at press conferences (when he isn’t shouting “fake news” at others). News organizations, if they are willing to put up with Conway’s methods, are also bringing Trumpian logic into a mainstream stage where it can wither under the harsh light of reality. As the election demonstrated, these half-truths and conspiracy theories became a much bigger problem when they weren’t taken seriously.
But that being said, Conway should still be banned from television news. The problem isn’t that she’s lying, but that she’s a distraction. Her methodology of staying on-message reduces rhetoric until it’s meaningless — and while that is particularly galling to journalists, who dedicate their careers to truth and the facts, engaging with her is just a waste of valuable resources. Tapper, alone, seems to have aged a decade just trying to wrangle her; in his last showdown with her, he even pleads midway:
“I would much rather be talking to you about veterans issues. In fact, when it comes to the Trump administration, I would much rather be covering immigration. I would much rather be covering trade. And I would much rather be covering draining the swamp and counterterrorism. But instead, every day, there are these sprays of attack and sprays of falsehoods coming from the White House…”
Throughout the conversation, Tapper sounds like he’s “eviscerating” Conway. But in that back-and-forth, he’s really he’s just admitting that she’s winning: She’s in charge of the conversation.
The truth is Conway is simply bad at her job. This is one of the reason she’s so captivating within the media bubble; she’s on our turf, and flailing. Her particular gift is to make it sound like she is agreeing with whatever has just been said, before she goes on to say something that completely opposes it. When this stops working, she digresses to irrelevant detail. Her rhetoric is faulty enough that it makes even Matt Lauer look like a hard-hitting journalist. “That makes no sense,” he told her out of exasperation, speaking for all of us.
But while Conway fences with her odd smokescreen of dissembling small talk, the Trump administration is carrying on a probably treasonous relationship with Russia and actively making money off of the American taxpayers. Her job is to speak for the president, but either through malice or incompetence (or both), she has become a taxpayer-funded distraction, a court jester who does predictable tricks while the White House metaphorically burns. Conway is media chum; of course going after her is satisfying. But there are much bigger fish to fry.
If news organizations want to keep booking Conway for television appearances, they ought to keep in mind that poking the bear carries with it the consequence of taking time away from other more serious issues, like what her bosses are up to when she’s creating and then stamping out mini-scandals like the Bowling Green Massacre. This isn’t to say that those things shouldn’t be pointed out — they absolutely should, because if Conway had her way, we’d be living in a propaganda state where she’d be making up reality as we went along. This also isn’t meant to stoke the paranoia of those who suspect that the Trump Administration’s current boondoggle is less a mistake than it is just the next step of Stephen Bannon’s master plan to take over the universe. It’s instead a reminder that Conway — and Spicer — are what the press easily fixate on, and ultimately they are just the symptoms of a larger problem, which is that an inexperienced buffoon with delusions of autocracy sits in the White House. But it won’t be bans of Conway that crack that nut.