The showdown between the US and Iran is precisely the time when credibility is needed the most — and President Trump doesn’t have it.
Trump began to squander his credibility in the very first hours of his presidency — around the time he said it was sunny when it was actually cloudy and rainy at his inauguration. His later misstatements about terrorism, foreign policy, immigration and voter fraud proved to be much more consequential.
Many members of his administration have followed Trump down a path of deceit, leaving their credibility in tatters too. This is a matter of public record, so journalists should not tip-toe around this reality. While we should avoid being cynical, we should question everything, with refreshed memories of what happened in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Journalistic values and patriotism demand that skepticism.
On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” telecast, I talked about patriotism, because I already see propagandists trying to name and shame people who doubt Trump’s claims about Iran. They’re telling us to wear blinders. But the truth is that it is patriotic to ask for evidence; to question official accounts; to wonder if the public is being manipulated into a wider war.
It is patriotic to ask — as Fox’s Tucker Carlson did the other day — “who’s actually benefiting from this?”
It is patriotic to apply skepticism.
It is patriotic to hold our leaders accountable.
Fox’s Pete Hegseth, a leading ally of the president, claimed on Saturday’s “Fox & Friends” that “since the Iraq War, it feels like patriotism is largely dead among our journalism corps.” To Hegseth, I’d say, patriotism is alive and well in America’s newsrooms. But his type of “journalists aren’t patriotic” talk is going to keep up. If this crisis worsens, the American press will come under more and more pressure to “rally around the flag,” to toe the line, to save their questions for later. But no — this is the time, right now, to insist on evidence and accountability.
And that’s what we are seeing, for example, in Sunday’s interviews with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and in hard-hitting news stories and in viral social media messages.
On Saturday, two days after the American airstrike that killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, CNN’s Zachary Cohen pointed out that the administration claimed the strike came “in response to an impending threat to American lives, but the lack of evidence provided to lawmakers and the public has fueled lingering skepticism about whether the strike was justified.”
Other major news outlets have published similar stories. On Sunday, several interviewers pressed Pompeo for more information on the intel that backed up the strike.
CNN’s Jake Tapper also brought up the broader issue of credibility, citing polling that shows a majority of the American people “have never considered” Trump to be honest or trustworthy. In addition, presidents in the past have misled the American public about wars, a tension that Matt Welch of the libertarian magazine Reason pointed out last week. “The truth, which literally hurts, is that every administration lies about war, particularly (though not only) about its reasons for initiating deadly force,” Welch wrote. Just look at the Pentagon Papers and more recently, the Afghanistan Papers.
“There is this credibility gap,” Tapper said on his Sunday show. “In addition, obviously, this nation has heard leaders — whether it’s blaming a YouTube video for the attacks on the embassy in Benghazi, or WMD in Iraq — people have heard this government, the government of the United States, say things to them that were not true when it comes to the war. Do you understand that there might be a special responsibility to provide proof and evidence to the American people of the imminence of the attack, of the need to carry out the mission that you’ve carried out?”
“I do understand the power that we have,” Pompeo said, “and the need that we have to try and share with the American people everything we possibly can about why it is we’re taking the actions that we take.”
But reporters are still waiting for more detailed information. It is patriotic to keep asking, keep insisting.