Between the scissors and blade

Monday, 1 May 2017

Or how Spicer landed in hot waters over Spicy tweets by his boss Donald Trump

By S Narendra
(Former adviser to PMs and ex-spokesperson for Govt of India)

Did the US President Donald Trump on April 12th tell For News  that  America ( “we are”) sending an armada’ to the waters around the Korean Peninsula  for countering  North Korea test firing missiles capable of carrying nuclear war heads  and  holding threats to test every week its nuclear weapons? In the TV interview the President made it clear that North Koreas threats would not go without a response from the US. He went on tell that the armada (did not say ships) being sent includes submarines, ’far  more powerful than the aircraft carriers’.
A few days  later , when the  looming crisis  had  not materialised,  the New York Times reported that the armada was not sailing to deter Korea as suggested by the President.  It was in fact thousands of miles away sailing in the Indian Ocean for joint exercises with Australian navy. According to the report, there was a miscommunication between the White House and the Pentagon. One does not know whether the President unknowingly had made an ill-timed suggestion or a deliberate bluff  for scaring  North Korea .But this failure of the armada to turn up in the area as suggested upset  US  allies like South Korea and Japan which rely on US defence support. In the event of a belligerent and impetuous leader Jong-Un had taken rash  action threatened by the news of US armada,  the allies would have been exposed to extreme danger. Commentators point out that due to the ill-timed statement of the US President, the credibility of US as a reliable ally has suffered.
The controversy got fresh lease of life when the President’s spokesperson ,Sean Spicer,  in his media briefing  (a week later, even  though the  naval fleet  was still  operating near the Australian coast)  attempted to explain his boss’s statement. He disingenuously asserted that the naval fleet was ‘ultimately’ headed in Korea’s direction and no timeline was specified. This was said despite the fact that the President’s TV interview was given when, according to Spicer, ‘sending the armada ‘  it did not mean immediate dispatch, hence  there was no ambiguity in the President’s claim.
Sean Spicer has adopted a very combative style matching that of his boss. The President has more than once characterised the media as ‘dishonest’ ,’evil’ ‘fake news peddlers’ and the White House  had taken the extreme step of barring media outlets perceived as not friendly  like CNN and Washington Post from the White House  briefings. Watching the recoding of the Spokesperson’s briefing sessions, one gets the impression that Spicer is both shifty and often testy. No doubt he has an unenviable job, since the President is eager to first air his weighty views on policies and global events on Twitter.  
The President does not hesitate to make controversial unfounded claims nor does he entertain any qualms about executing 360 degree U-turns on his stand on key  issues. As a result, most media have opened a special section for fact checking on President Trump. It is therefore, an under- statement to say that this Spokesperson is between the blades of a scissors.
Here is another instance where Sean Spicer got into hot waters in trying to parse another of President Trump’s highly controversial claim. The following Tweets of President Trump are on record;  they went on to embarrass the American democracy itself.
 @real Trump
“Terrible.Just found that Obama “wire tapped’  in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism” 2.35am-4th Mar 2017.
“Is it legal for  a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW” 3,49 am 4 Mar 2017
“I bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October just prior to Election!” 3.52 am 4 Mar 2017
“How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” 4.02 am 4 Mar 2017

The US Justice Department and FBI  responsible for carrying out wiretapping in certain cases require Court sanction. The FBI’s current chief is registered supporter of the Republican party. Both the agencies could not unearth any evidence in support of this very disturbing claim by the President.
Now, you may ask as to how the White House spokesman dealt with this controversy!
Sean Spicer’s first response was to let the President’s Tweet speak for itself. However a week later, Spicer told the media that “wiretapping” was an entirely separate accusation to Trump’s unverified “wire tapping” allegations.” If you look at the President’s tweet, he said very clearly, quote wire tapping  unquote. And Spier added, “there has been substantial discussion in several reports. There’s been reports in the New York Times, and the BBC and other outlets about other aspects of surveillance that have occurred”. (Media fact-check did not show any such reports in the outlets named). “The President was very clear in his Tweet, you   know, that ‘wire tapping’ that spans a whole lot of other options’.
The hole digging went further when the high profile White House adviser Kellyanne Convey told a channel that covert surveillance can be conducted through microwave that can turn on  camera etcetera. The key word used by her was “can”. But did it happen?. Neither she nor Spicer could offer any proof.
While explaining the President’s relevant Tweets, both Spicer and  Convey ignored a raging controversy  about Russian intelligence spying on the election campaign process and leaking information adverse to Trump’s opponent that helped the winner. The US legislature was inquiring into this Russian spying. It was apparent that the President wanted to divert attention away from this controversy and also from the charge that he and his administration were close to Moscow. As a result of the Spokesman’s   attempt to parse the Tweets of the boss, the bad story was gaining more traction and more unfavourable fact checking on this and other statements of the President.
In both the incidents cited, the credibility of the administration and that of the primary official source of news was stretched. The office of the Spokesperson is a bridge between the media and the government.  What sustains and strengthens  this bridge is the  mutual respect  the Spokesperson and the media hold for  each other’s roles and responsibilities; neither crosses the professional lines. The   Spokesperson is invariably is a media professional and the media generally regard him or her as one among them.  
In the US system, the white House has a less visible director of communication whose job it is to ensure unity of message emanating from the totality of government, Again in the US political arrangement, the White House is the focal point of both politics and the government. As such, its Spokesperson has the opportunity to lead the headlines. The ordinary people get to see their President and the government in action through the media - conventional and social. As the latter  borrows and blend stories and commentaries from each other, the Spokesperson as the primary source of news and explanations of policy and developments can influence perceptions.
Coming back to the incidents cited, the first response of Spicer- ‘the President Tweet says it all’- was a wise one. The later attempts to parse the President’s TV interview or the Tweet was a case of bad judgment, No doubt the media must have trapped Spicer for implication.  Professionalism prepares the Spokesperson not to be trapped by media. Professional training helps the Spokesperson to allow a bad story to exhaust itself look for opportunities to change the headline. 
While working as the government and PM spokesman, I adopted the policy of letting the statement of the boss remain, even when it was most untenable. Or advice the chief to issue a wholesome retraction, if the statement was indefensible or very controversial. Media expects and accepts a  politician to equivocate and tell half truths. 

But it would not trust a fellow professional who happens to be speaking up for the government, when he equivocates or offers disingenuous explanations. 

Once the spokesperson’s credibility is lost, his (her) value to both the media and the organisation he speaks up for diminishes.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are purely his personal. PRapport does not take any responsibility for any of it, except respecting Narendra for his candid views as a veteran communication professional - Editor


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