Gee. Who’d ‘a’ thought? The Wall Street Journal reported today that President Donald Trump’s “credibility came under fire” during Congressional hearing yesterday with FBI Director James Comey. Again? The Toronto Star is counting Trump’s lies — 129 and going strong. Reporter Daniel Dale figures that on Trump’s most truthful day there were only four lies — on his worst, 25. The New York Times has confronted this remarkable pathology of lies in the current White House by announcing a renewed focus on truth and transparency.
Issues of truth and transparency have been the subject of media investigation for at least as long as a professional media has existed. But the new American President has brought this whole discussion into the media spotlight with renewed force. It’s meant that the news media that was decimated in recent years by lay-offs and restructuring “are hiring like crazy,” says Dean Baquet, Executive Editor at the New York Times. He predicts that “the next two years are going to be a defining time not just for the New York Times but for journalism in general.” The same could be said for the public relations profession.
As a young graduate student in history, I was required to study historiography — the philosophical exploration of the “nature of historical fact.” The actuality of truth can be distorted by perception and perspective. Every crime investigator knows that notions of truth are always nuanced. People see things — or don’t see things — in different ways. But in the current situation, we add to this the deliberate layering of lies on an unprecedented scale.
We all tell lies — or exaggerate our truths sometimes to excuse an oversight or avoid an uncomfortable come-uppance. Prevaricating with the truth can on occasion even take the moral high ground. I advocate being “gentle with the truth.” Bluntness and truth-telling can in some situations be deeply hurtful and even injurious. However the level of flagrant lying, distortion and misrepresentation, among the current occupants of the White House has nothing to do with kindness. At its basest it is a deliberate attempt to mislead and distort for reasons that may on occasion be obscure but are always darkly sinister.
Public relations professionals have spent several decades cleaning up the slurs of hucksterism which once defined our activities — sometimes with justification. We have become the champions of transparency and truth inside our organizations and for the clients we serve. When I have clients going into an interview I have one over-arching piece of advice. “Tell the truth. Under no circumstances lie. You aren’t obliged to open the kimono for every question. BUT DO NOT LIE.” Guess I’d last five minutes with Donald Trump. Which is interesting because we opened the Trump Hotel here in Toronto and we lasted about five minutes;) Well we lasted through post launch. But it was clear throughout that our posture of openness and fairness with the media was not the Trump style. They wanted “control.”
I was at a dinner party on Sunday night and of course, no dinner party today takes place without some discussion of the astonishing situation south of the border. At one point someone remarked that at least you have to acknowledge that Kellyanne Conway is a smart cookie to have made it to this level of power. No I don’t have to acknowledge that Kellyanne Conway with her “alternative facts” is anything other than a fast talking sycophant. She and Sean Spicer have taken the communications profession to a new low we can only deplore.