How former White House press secretary's story highlights a question of trust

Sean Spicer packs away the bombast to discuss Trump, journalism and social media
By Bernd Debusmann Jr
Thu 12 Apr 2018 04:03 PM

For just over six months in 2017, then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had what many people would consider an unenviable, if not impossible, job: being the most public face of a presidential administration beset by scandal, controversy and chaos.

From the beginning, Spicer’s place at the very heart of Washington politics was marked by a conflictive relationship with a Washington press corps that was, to put it mildly, largely hostile to the incoming administration. In his very first statement to the press, Spicer famously told reporters that the crowd at Donald Trump’s inaugural ceremony was the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period” – a demonstrably false claim that was variously described as “bizarre”, “a deliberate attempt to mislead” and “embarrassing” before he eventually walked it back.

That first press briefing on Janaury 21 – which came even before Spicer’s first “official” press conference at the White House – is, for lack of a better word, agonising to watch now. For what seems like an eternity, Spicer lectured the media for what he called an intentional effort to mislead the public, as well as a “shameful and wrong” attempt to dampen enthusiasm for the inauguration. The briefing ended abruptly, with Spicer picking his papers off the podium and briskly walking away from questions being shouted across the room by incredulous reporters.

With the combative tone that would characterise his tenure, Spicer would spend much of the next six months in a seemingly endless battle with the press – or, in Trump’s words, taking “tremendous amount of abuse from the fake news media” – while at the same time achieving unprecedented levels of public recognition for a press secretary.

Having left the White House in July 2017, Spicer has now had time to reflect on the Trump administration, his role in it – which he plans to detail in an upcoming book – the media, and the future. Arabian Business caught up with him during a recent visit to the UAE, where he was among the speakers at the Sharjah International Government Communication Forum, which dealt, in part, with how to build trust between governments and people in a social media world where rumours are quickly taken for fact and spread like wildfire.

In person, Spicer’s calm and direct, almost military demeanor [he retains a rank of Commander in the US Naval Reserve] is a far cry from the loud and hostile caricature of him famously portrayed by actress Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. But, soft-spoken as he may be, he has a lot to say about the state of the modern media and its relationship with governments and people.

News gone awry

Before the dust from the Trump administration’s initial PR blunder had even settled, news broke that Trump has signed Executive Order 13769, banning citizens of seven  Muslim-majority nations from entering the US. Almost instantly, the move was met with harsh condemnation and accusations of Islamophobia from politicians on both sides of the American political spectrum. The ban sparked protests around the world and prompted more than 900 American diplomats to sign a “dissent cable” voicing their disapproval. Spicer soon found himself, yet again, on the receiving end of a critical media.

Trump’s decision to ban citizens of seven Muslim nations from entering the US was massively criticised

According to Spicer, the move and the media’s reaction to it served as an example of unprepared, hasty decision-making by the government and mishandling by the media. “It was the beginning of the administration. One, we didn’t have the full set of government actors that could have helped us promulgate that,” he says. “Two, we let that narrative get out of control, real quick.”

“People made assumptions about what it was, or created narratives about what it was, before we had an opportunity to accurately describe it,” he adds. “Looking back, we rolled it out in a very quick way, and it led to a lot of misinformation that we could have probably slowed down – but we didn’t have a full slate of nominees in each of those critical areas.”

Looking back, Spicer says he “doesn’t know” whether the ban had an adverse effect on the administration’s standing in the eyes of the public or the Muslim world, but acknowledges that the overall effect was negative. “I don’t think it was helpful,” he says. “I don’t know how much damage it did, but whenever people are questioning your motives on anything, that’s not the best place to be.”

A broken relationship

Spicer’s difficult first few months in the White House starkly highlighted a society in which trust between people, the media and government seems at an all-time low. The term “fake news” is thrown about with alarming frequency. Can this frayed relationship ever be mended? “It’s like any relationship. It takes both sides to try. It’s not a one way-street,” Spicer says. “I do think that, as much as there is some fair criticism of government and of leaders, there’s also some fair criticism of the media. It would be smart if journalists and big picture media companies thought about what their role is and where their standing is, and how to improve upon that.”

Among Spicer’s main bones of contention, he says, is what he considers a worrying blurring of the lines between reporting and punditry and between facts and opinion, particularly on Twitter, a problem that he partly attributes to competition between “legitimate” media organisations and social media, in which people can “tweet thoughts and ideas that aren’t necessarily based in fact.

“There are days when reporters want to be judged on who they are on Twitter, versus who they are on their outlet,” he notes. “Reporters sometimes forget that people can read their tweets, meaning that you have a legitimate reporter that is liking, forwarding, or re-tweeting something that isn’t at the same level of [journalistic] standards. It’s hard for people to distinguish, and that’s a problem.”

This isn’t to say that Spicer has an issue with reporters, as a whole, or with pundits and commentators. “There is room for it all. It’s good to have pundits and it’s good to have opinion writers. But it’s also good to have reporters,” he says. “The problem is when reporters blend themselves into the opinion and pundit side. That’s when they lose credibility as a straight-up reporter.”

A Facebook failure

As a recent example of what he considers a media failing, Spicer points to coverage of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial British data mining and strategic communications firm. Some news outlets – and whistleblower Chris Wylie – have suggested that the data gleaned by the firm helped Trump win the election, essentially cheating the democratic process. “That’s an example of highly irresponsible reporting. There is no evidence to that, at all. But that gets back to the trust issue,” he says. “When readers and viewers see outlets jump to conclusions without any basis in fact, that’s what causes a lot of the distrust.”

In the interview, Spicer dismisses Cambridge Analytica as “a vendor that helped place some ads”, while at the same time acknowledging that data played a role in the Republican electoral campaign.

“The basis of all our data was what we fulfilled at the Republican National Committee [for which Spicer served as communications director and later as chief party strategist]. It is… misguided to describe it as anything more than a relationship with a vendor. What they did, and how they did it, I don’t know, but we used ad buying firms for broadcast media, radio, television, et cetera, and a bunch of different types of web-based or social [platforms].”

Sean Spicer often cut a pugnacious figure from behind the White House lectern

From the standpoint of a communications professional, Spicer is equally dismissive of Facebook’s handling of the affair. “The response from Facebook has been lackluster, at best. I would have expected a much more robust, forward-leaning response to what they’ve given so far, and I think that they should be setting an example for other social platforms.”

Education over regulation

When it comes to the future of social media, Spicer is quick to note that there are calls “to regulate what’s going on in the social sphere”. He believes that this path is doomed to fail, as governments can’t hope to keep up with the pace of technological change. Still, he believes that unless social media companies do more to be transparent, there will be efforts to establish more regulations governing their business.

“My advice to these companies, the technology companies, the social platforms, is to try get ahead of it by being more transparent, by trying to protect their customers and not just protect their data. They need to share with them what they’re gleaning [from the data] and how they can do a better job themselves, as users, to protect it,” he says. “I think it behooves these companies to get ahead of this before a government tries to regulate them.

They governments are going to come in and are going to start to regulate things, and that’s not good for business,” he adds. “They will try to regulate, and the technology will have already gone beyond tomorrow and the next day. You don’t want to stifle the innovations and advances being made by trying to regulate the current state of play.”

View from the “front row seat”

Looking back on his tumultuous six months in the White House, Spicer admits that he felt he was becoming the subject of news coverage “many times”, which was often a distraction from his primary duties as White House press secretary. “Obviously, the focus should always be on the president, or the principal, depending on who you’re working for, and the agenda they have,” he says. “Not on staff.”

Given the constant criticism from hostile reporters, his difficult duty to respond to his boss’ late night tweets and brutal lampooning in memes and by Saturday Night Live, would he do it all over again?  Spicer responds without a moment’s hesitation. “Absolutely. There are less than 30 people who have ever had the role that I did,” he says. “I got a front row seat to history in a way that many never will, or could. It was an honour and a privilege.”


Spicer’s advice to his successors

When asked by Arabian Business what advice he would give to his successors in the communications department of the Trump White House, Spicer says he would tell them to “stay focused on the agenda and policy items.”

“At the end of the day, the American people in particular are result-oriented,” he says. “Focus on the economy. Focus on making the lives of every American safer, and better, and let everything else go by the wayside.”

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