The House GOP’s effort to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics may have lasted less than a day, but we can still learn a lot from how it played out, and how it was covered by the press.
On Monday evening, with no advance notice or debate, the House Republican Conference voted to limit the power and independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics in several ways, including putting it under control of the party-controlled House Ethics Committee—a classic case of putting the foxes in charge of guarding the hen house. The vote was a blatant admission of the incoming Congress’s disregard for ethics and their intention to do as they please.
The move sparked outrage, with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s voicemail filled to capacity with calls from the public to drop the anti-oversight campaign and ethics counsels to President Barack Obama and George W. Bush issuing a joint statement condemning it.
The vote was so clumsy, in fact, that even President-elect Donald Trump acknowledged it shouldn’t have been the incoming Congress’s first move. Trump made what now passes for an official statement by tweeting, “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it ……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS”
Note that he called the oversight committee “unfair” and didn’t criticize the GOP’s move to dismantle it—just their timing.
But in their frenzy to cover every unhinged utterance from the President-elect’s Twitter feed, several news outlets latched onto his statement, completely mangling it in a game of quick-journalism telephone.
The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, The New York Post, Salon and others published articles about Trump’s tweet under headlines claiming that he had “slammed,” “called out” and “opposed” their vote. He did none of these things; he merely asked whether they really had to dismantle oversight first.
By early Tuesday afternoon, House GOP members had dropped their bid to take control of their own oversight, and the same news outlets gave Trump credit, announcing the reversal as if it was a direct result of Trump’s nonexistent “backlash.”
Bloomberg News ran an article titled “House GOP Reverses on Ethics Change After Trump Criticism,” but rather than offering any evidence that the reversal was in fact a result of Trump’s vague tweet, the article quotes Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina as saying, “We have got just a tremendous number of calls to our office here and district offices concerned about this.”
The truth is that public pressure killed the GOP’s brazen effort, but the press whipped itself up into such a frenzy over the President-elect’s soft-shoe critique that they invented a battle of wills between Trump and the House GOP when there was none. In doing so, they made it look like Trump does, in fact, want to clean up corruption in government, when his actions in regard to his own conflicts of interest have so clearly proven otherwise.
Unfortunately, Trump’s tweets are newsworthy. As unhinged, self-contradictory and careless as they may be, they are the method by which the President-elect has chosen to communicate with the public. That makes them news. But there’s enough controversy in Trump’s tweets to cover them as they are. Exaggerating them for more exciting headlines is irresponsible, rough-shot journalism that only enables Trump’s deft political misdirection.
The lesson from this one-day political theatre is not that Trump is sticking to his “drain the swamp” guns. (He’s not.) It’s that public pressure works, calling your representatives works and Trump’s artful manipulation of the press won’t be winding down any time soon. With the press’s pathetic clamoring for every morsel of drivel to fall from Trump’s middle-of-the-night tweets, it’s more important now than ever for citizens to read beyond the headlines.