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A ‘Spicy’ Memoir: How To Lie With A Straight Face

Anonymously mass-mailed proposal for a blockbuster new book:

Dear [fill in name of editor],

As you devour the explosive details of this book manuscript, you’ll understand why I need to withhold my identity at this time.

I currently work at the highest level of government in Washington. My official job description is “press secretary,” though my real duties are much more sensitive.

My boss (let’s call him “Thump”) is an impulsive, vain, petty megalomaniac, but I accepted this job believing I could make him appear thoughtful, caring, and poised.

What the hell was I smoking? Every day there’s a new train wreck, and I’m the one lying bloody on the tracks.

In only three weeks, I’ve compiled enough shocking “insider” material for a surefire bestseller. It’s possible I won’t be employed here much longer, so I’ve been hurriedly working on this memoir in my spare time.

The first chapter kicks off with my job interview, an unforgettable morning. I was summoned to midtown Manhattan and escorted to a bright atrium, where a crew of painters perched on scaffolds was applying industrial bronzer to my future boss.

“Spicer!” he bellowed. No, wait, scratch that.

“Dicer!” he bellowed. “The position of press secretary requires one essential skill: Can you lie and keep a straight face?”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“You’ll be my front man with the scum-dog media. Some of the things I’ll order you to say will be so outlandishly false and silly that you’ll want to burst out laughing. I need somebody who can keep a straight face, no matter what.”

“I can do that, sir!”

And thus began my grim descent.

On my first day at work, “Thump” spoke at a large public event. The aerial photographs showed several hundred thousand people there — a very respectable turnout — but the boss told me to report the crowd as a whopping 1.5 million.

Which I did, loyally, without cracking a smile.

He also instructed me to bash the media for questioning the crowd size, so I bashed those suckers big-time. Seriously, I was IN THEIR FACES! It’s all laid out in Chapter Two.

Every day was a new battle, and I thought I was doing fine. Every night, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I’d practice my disdainful stare and scolding tone. For pointers I even studied old tapes of Ron Ziegler, Richard Nixon’s press secretary, scoffing at the Watergate break-in.

What I didn’t know, until later, was that my boss — who watches like 23 hours of TV a day — was replaying each press conference, rating my performance.

The feedback was crushing. He said I wasn’t tough enough, slick enough, or dapper enough. I write about this, sadly, in Chapter Seven.

Then a certain Saturday-night comedy program featured a sketch about me totally losing my s–t at a press conference. I’d thought it was pretty funny, until Thump hauled me into his office.

“The actor who played you was really a chick!” he hollered.

“What? No way!”

He put on the video and we watched it nine times. He was right — a movie actress named Melissa had been made up to look like me.

No fan of parody, Thump was furious. He said being impersonated by a woman made me look weak, and that made him look weak for hiring me.

I innocently asked if he didn’t have more important stuff to worry about, such as Iran’s missile tests or his daughter’s troubled line of designer handbags. He responded by throwing a golf ball at my head, a scene I chillingly recreate in Chapter Eleven.

Last week was the worst. In defending Thump’s views on Muslim immigrants, I was told to mention the terrorist attacks in Boston, San Bernardino, and Atlanta.

Except it turns out that the only bomber to go after Atlanta was a Florida-born redneck who targeted the 1996 Olympics — definitely not a jihadist.

Yet, somehow I named Atlanta in three different interviews. So, when the blowback began, I got the brilliant idea to say I was actually referring to the city of Orlando.

Except it turns out the Pulse nightclub shooter isn’t an immigrant, either. He was born in New York. The media sure drilled me a new one after that, as you’ll see in Chapter Thirteen.

Still I’m hanging in there, faithfully saying whatever whacky made-up stuff the boss wants me to say, regardless of facts. I might not have a job by the time you read this book proposal, but at least I’ll go out with a straight face.

Can we work that into the title?

IMAGE: White House spokesman Sean Spicer holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump’s TV Star Fades: He’s No Longer A Ratings Magnet

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

President Donald Trump might have been cheering the New England Patriots’ historic comeback on Super Bowl Sunday, but he couldn’t have been happy about his own contribution to the day. His sit-down interview with Bill O’Reilly, which aired during Fox’s pre-Super Bowl coverage, turned out to be something of a ratings dud. And for a president who obsesses over TV ratings and uses them to validate his own identity, the Sunday interview seemed to be the latest example of his fading personal appeal.

Trump’s Q&A with O’Reilly drew approximately 12 million viewers. That’s a respectable number, but when President Barack Obama sat down for the traditional pre-Super Bowl interview in 2009, his first year in office, almost 22 million people tuned in, nearly double Trump’s audience. (And it wasn’t a matter of who was playing later; game viewership ratings in 2017 were substantially higher than those in 2009.) Even Obama’s pre-Super Bowl interviews during his second term in office easily outpaced the audience size for Trump’s recent sit-down. Obama drew 18 million viewers in 2014, 16 million in 2015, and 15 million last year.

That’s been the pattern in recent weeks, as Trump, who spent 2016 chronically boasting about his ability to spike TV news ratings, clearly falls short of the ratings successes Obama posted early in his presidency. As the least popular new president in modern American history, Trump seems to having trouble connecting with the masses.

For instance, on January 25, ABC News’ David Muir conducted the first prime-time interview with Trump following his inauguration. The show “didn’t set the Nielsen charts aflame,” drawing just 7.5 million viewers and weakly performing in the “advertiser-coveted” 18-49 demographic, as Variety reported. How many viewers watched Obama’s first prime-time interview as president? Seventeen million, or 10 million more than tuned in for Trump.

At the end of last month, when Trump turned his announcement of a Supreme Court nominee into a prime-time production, 33 million people watched. In contrast, Obama’s first prime-time event was a press conference he held on the night of February 4, 2009, when nearly 50 million Americans watched.

And then there was the size of Trump’s inauguration audience, which became a topic that drove the White House to distraction. After bragging that his swearing-in would perhaps draw the largest crowd in Washington, D.C. history, only a modest-sized audience showed up, Trump began wildly inflating the estimates. The crowd “looked like a million, million and a half,” he announced at a speech the day after inauguration, while a crowd-science expert estimated that Trump’s audience was about one-third the size of Obama’s approximately 1.8 million-person crowd in 2009.

Then — after continuing to stew over crowd size numbers throughout the day — Trump sent White House press secretary Sean Spicer to the White House press briefing room to angrily tell reporters that Trump’s swearing-in attracted “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the world.”

Trump himself tweeted about how large his inauguration TV audience was, bragging that more people watched his swearing-in than Obama’s four years earlier.

But Trump’s citation of Obama’s second inaugural was a red herring; here are the facts: Across 12 television networks, 31 million people watched Trump’s inauguration, which was 7 million fewer than watched Obama’s first inauguration. That represented a nearly 20 percent decline in viewership. (Trump also garnered fewer viewers than both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.)

Some caveats: Trump’s Fox News interview with Sean Hannity last month was a big success. So we know that within the right-wing media bubble, Trump remains a star attraction.

And the topic of Trump is still driving viewers to television news teams. The 2016 election cycle delivered a ratings bonanza for cable news, with all three networks enjoying robust audience gains: Fox was up 36 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, CNN, 77 percent, and MSNBC, 87 percent. (MSNBC posted its best year ever, and CNN its best since 1995.) And their ratings remain strong in 2017.

Note also that as it rides a wave of Trump mockery, Saturday Night Live is posting its best numbers in 22 years.

But the idea that Trump himself stands as some sort of cultural phenomenon and that Americans flock to their TVs every time he appears in front of a camera is simply not accurate. (Television news producers, please take note.)

In television-speak, viewer fatigue seems to have set in and the plot line already appears to be running thin. Keep in mind that Trump just made history by losing the popular vote tally by nearly 3 million votes and remains the least popular new president since modern-day polling was invented.

Trump’s tepid Nielsen numbers are bad news for the president since he’s utterly obsessed with television ratings. Even before entering politics, he routinely took to Twitter to tout the numbers for his show Celebrity Apprentice. (“For Trump, Everything Is a Rating,” noted a recent New York Times headline.) For years, Trump has turned to ratings as a way to both validate himself and to undercut his foes.

And yes, Trump has openly lied about ratings when they didn’t convey the storyline he preferred — when they didn’t confirm his status as a winner.

From Adweek:

Former (and now deceased) Celebrity Apprentice publicist Jim Dowd told PBS’ Frontline in 2015 that even as the show’s ratings plummeted, Trump demanded he call the TV reporters at major publications and tell them, “‘No. 1 show on television, won its time slot,’ and I’m looking at the numbers and at that point, say Season 5, for example, we were No. 72.”‘

Last year, Dowd told CNN that in his 20 years in the television business, he’d never seen anyone “who cared as deeply about ratings, positive or negative, as Donald Trump.”

On the eve of the inauguration, Bill Scher, writing in New Republic, suggested there was no better way to rattle a man “uniquely obsessed with being seen” than to tune out his swearing-in and deprive him of a big TV audience to brag about. “A mass refusal to watch Trump on TV will deprive him of big ratings, which he routinely uses to create a false impression of widespread popularity.”

There hasn’t yet been a mass refusal to watch Trump in recent weeks, but the shoulder shrug does seem to be spreading.

Deep Character Flaws Will Ultimately Define Trump’s Presidency

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

Donald Trump continues to make history.

We know of no other president in American history who has started out his tenure by unfurling two preposterous bookend lies, the way Trump did during his first days in office.

He lied fantastically about the size of his inauguration crowd. And then, taking a sledgehammer to the premise of free and fair elections, he lied fantastically about millions of Americans having voted illegally on Election Day, supposedly costing him the popular vote victory.

Pressed for details, White House press secretary Sean Spicer could point to no real evidence to back up Trump’s whimsically dangerous insistence about ballot box fraud. Spicer also sputtered trying to justify the unjustifiable claim about historic viewership for the Republican’s swearing-in.

Both of those bold prevarications ignited media firestorms, and for good reason, as increasingly baffled journalists try to decode Trump’s daily crusade to gaslight them about simple facts and events. More and more, journalists are straining to make sense of Trump’s erratic ways; trying to figure out what his political motivation is for spreading such easily debunked falsehoods.

Trump is “addicted to controversy,” and suffers “acute sensitivity to criticism,” reasoned The Washington Post. He just can’t “shake his erratic campaign habits,” Politico suggested, while The New York times pointed to Trump’s “anxiety” as a reason he needs to tell tall White House tales.

Two key points: Trump has shown himself to be a relentless liar since he launched his political career in 2015. Anyone who thought he would discontinue that habit as president just hasn’t been paying attention.

Second, if journalists want to understand Trump’s unbalanced Oval Office behavior they need to focus on his character and his extremely troubling flaws. (They’re not merely “campaign habits,” as Politico called them.) Those character flaws will ultimately define his presidency because they’ve always fueled his erratic actions and weird fixations.

Yes, Trump’s a dishonest conspiracy theorist. But he’s also much more than that. He’s a remorseless liar and a grievously insecure man who seems to feed off spite and revenge.

And by the way, that description mirrors the one Tony Schwartz has given about the Republican billionaire. And Schwartz knows Trump well, having served as Trump’s ghostwriter on his 1987 breakthrough memoir, The Art of the Deal. (Trump is a “sociopath,” and “lying is second nature to him,” says Schwartz.)

It’s true that some in the press have begun to do a better job at clearly labeling Trump’s lies for what they are. What’s been largely missing, though, is the why: Why does the president of United States act in such an erratic and dangerous way? What’s been missing post-election are regular and detailed examinations of Trump’s character as an explanation for his unprecedented actions.

Understanding and recognizing the character blemishes at the center of Trump’s personality isn’t superfluous, armchair analysis. It’s the key to gaining a crucial window into who the president is, as well as into the country’s precarious future.

Instead, journalists keep searching for rational “explanations” to Trump’s presidential behavior, trying to make sense of his pattern of telling obvious lies. (Remember when we were told not to take Trump’s outlandish claims “literally“?) But pathological liars like Trump don’t discriminate between lying about big things and lying about small things or between obvious lies and subtle ones. (See here and here for 600-plus documented falsehoods he’s told.)

Also, the press simply isn’t used to this level of naked dishonesty coming from the Oval Office. (Trump’s inauguration crowd totaled 1.5 million??) And journalists haven’t yet properly adjusted. They’re still accustomed to dissecting political lies in the context of, “What’s the motivation behind the lie?” And, “What’s the political advantage of telling that lie?” But that linear approach doesn’t always apply to Trump. There’s no indication he plots out the falsehoods or even cares if he gets caught. Lying is who he is. He cannot not tell lies.

In other words, it’s not a political strategy, it’s a character defect. Especially for someone like Trump who appears to have no deep ideological moorings.

This isn’t the typical territory most political journalists tread when covering Beltway politics. But it now needs to be. Journalists need to familiarize themselves with what it means to have someone in the White House who is “obsessed with his popularity”; what it means to have a serial liar occupying the Oval Office. They need to understand how people like that think, how they function, and why they lash out.

More analysis like this would be helpful, from MTV’s Jamil Smith (emphasis added):

But the defects of his personality have become almost instantaneously institutionalized within the White House. Whatever his mental and emotional hangups are, they’re now our problem, too. His fragility makes us all weaker, and his petulant outbursts can now shift world events. Sadly, it’s clear from the first few days of the Trump administration that the trustworthiness of his office is not the president’s foremost priority. His feelings are.

We need more reporting in the vein of the Associated Press’ recent examination of the extraordinary insecurity that seems to be driving the early days of the Trump presidency. And the Times’ Maggie Haberman’s recent reporting that shed light on the intersection between Trump’s impulsive personality and his early, erratic actions in the White House.

It may seem unusual for journalists to dissect the president’s character flaws in search of clues regarding his political agenda. But it’s just another instance where the media need to rip up the old Beltway rule book and find a new way forward.

IMAGE: Gage Skidmore/Flickr