November 1, 2017
Twitter Trumpers immediately started calling it a “gotcha” question, but it seemed like a logical follow-up to me. After White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended chief of staff John Kelly’s “honorable man” remarks about Robert E. Lee—that Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, that war, the war fought over slavery—press corps member April Ryan asked Sanders about the Trump administration’s position on slavery. Sanders had said that many of “our leaders”—including Lee but also both “JFK” and “Kennedy,” a claim worthy of more robust inquiry than I have space for here today—had been flawed, but had made contributions to the country.
When you have a high-ranking member of the United States military and representative of the presidential administration calling a racist traitor who led the fight for secession over the issue of slavery “an honorable man,” well, yeah — one of the follow-up questions from the news media is going to be about where the aforementioned administration is at, exactly, on slavery.
I understand the impetus to call it a “gotcha” question, because the vast majority of even the world’s dipshittiest racist brothers-in-law know better, at this point, than to suggest that slavery was not wrong. But this is not just any year 2017, this is Donald-Trump-won-the-presidency 2017, and white men in khakis are carrying torches through our streets, running over racial justice protesters in their muscle cars and celebrating, through word and symbology, a secession movement that championed the enslavement of black human beings by white human beings.
When the president suggests that those racist demonstrators were some of them “very fine people,” and when the president’s chief of staff describes the military leader of the Confederacy as an “honorable man,” and when the White House’s official mouthpiece describes the aforementioned treasonous general as a valuable contributor to American society—well, I think we have all the way backed up to needing to know just where this White House stands on slavery.
It is not at all obvious to me that Trump’s White House condemns slavery; April Ryan asked the right question. She’s one of a handful of members of this press pool that don’t seem afraid to really challenge the administration. She is also, it should be noted, a black woman, doing a great deal of the heavy journalistic lifting on race and gender issues that her white and male colleagues ought to be doing. But this is what people of privilege always do: expect marginalized folks to do the caring about and solving of “their,” but never “our,” issues. This political year has been astounding for lots of reasons, but this particularly unsurprising bit of human behavior endures even in bizarro Trumpland.
But I will admit to being legitimately surprised when I read about last week’s trick-or-treat event in the Oval Office, wherein real human adults made agent, affirmative decisions to place their children in the presence of a man known to creep in teen girls’ dressing rooms and grab women, as he so charmingly put it, verbatim, “by the pussy.” I wasn’t surprised that any adults would make this decision—the president's approval ratings are abysmal but he still has the support of millions — but i was surprised to find out which adults: Members of the White House press corps.
I’d initially assumed the stunt was a photo-op for the kids of paid donors or supporters, the only people I can imagine not abandoning the literal skin on their bones at the thought of putting their kids in the same room as the creeper-in-chief. But this! The same reporters who gather to be lied to, day after day, by an administration that openly hates them, ushered their kids into the Oval Office to be “treated” by a man who does almost nothing but berate and whine about their work and his ill-treatment at their hands. I ask you: What the actual, specific fuck? I know it’s the press corps’ job to show up to these daily charades; I don’t expect people to really quit their jobs even if their jobs are to dutifully record steaming hot piles of bullshit for posterity. And I’m glad we have folks like April Ryan holding feet to fire.
But parading your kids in front of a man who loathes and derides you personally, and your profession generally? In front of a man who would, unsurprisingly, end up making bizarre and inappropriate remarks about the kids’ weight and ethnic backgrounds? Guys, I don’t get it. Look, I mostly stay out of parenting issues because I’m not a parent and never want to be one, but I really have to scratch my head on this one. Is the appeal—is it a trip to the White House? Just to say you did it? To be honest, I’m not sure I want to know.
The dichotomy of criticism and complicity—of April Ryan asking “Was slavery wrong?” days after press corps members presented their costumed kids to the president—is not new to the news media in the year 2017. But it is important, in this remarkable political moment wherein it is an open question as to whether the presidential administration is willing to condemn slavery, to hold that dichotomy up for scrutiny whenever we consume the news, wherever we consume it.
A failure to challenge the status quo is an endorsement of the status quo; complicity is compliance. Journalists have to ask ourselves: Where is the line between just doing our jobs, and doing the jobs of politicians for them? Is there a politician so corrupt, so disastrously incompetent and so prone to prevarication that not treating him as a hostile, uncooperative source can be interpreted as anything but enabling him? That’s my “gotcha” question.