This week, Chris Cillizza filed his last post for “The Fix,” the Washington Post politics blog he started 11 years ago. Thank god.
Cillizza is moving to CNN, and he’s stoked about it because it will let him appear on TV and write under one roof. That seems to make it pretty clear the Post felt it was time to get Cillizza out of there. (He’s by his own admission rejected several previous offers, plus he already had a regular on-air gig at MSNBC.) And I don’t blame the paper, either: The Post, which recently changed its tagline to “Democracy Dies In Darkness,” is game for the great challenge that the election of Donald J. Trump has put to the press: The truth is just relative. Cillizza has never been up for that one.
But I don’t want this to be a piece about insider political journalism. I’m trying to point to something bigger that should matter to all of us: This is about how we have come to think about truth and fairness, and how we balance the two. So bear with me for just a moment while I set things up.
To Chris Cillizza’s credit, he never pretended to be a truth-hound. He started The Fix in 2006 as one of the first major daily political blogs—it predates Twitter—in an attempt to get a major political publication to adapt to the new media. The Fix was designed to be a one-hitter, taking its name from the realm of addiction. If you’re not familiar with The Fix, you can find clickbait posts every day on the Post homepage, right under the major headlines of the hour. If you don’t want to read the real story, read The Fix. It’ll get most of the main points in there and you won’t have to think for yourself.
And from the very beginning, Chris Cillizza understood something profound, whether he knew it at first or not: The internet had reframed truth. His mission statement about it is a death sentence for democracy. In his own words:
My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be.
Yes, the guiding principles for this brave new journalism were founded not on stuffy old truth, but in the real world—the real world of… perception? Those two phrases, “real world” and “perception,” don’t make sense next to each other. Sure, perception is reality, and the world isn’t anything other to you than how you perceive it—but there are over seven billion of these “real worlds.” Everyone deserves their own truth, sure, but not all truths are equal. At some point we must separate the Buddhas from the Dahmers. And worse, this isn’t even about morality or life after death. It’s about fucking politics. Cillizza is literally saying he will allow one of the cheapest, most perverted performances of reality—campaign politics—to define its own terms for him to play by.
In that statement Cillizza also pretends, like everyone including me does, that he cares about how “voters” believe the world is. But really, how do you know what voters believe? I mean, who the fuck is a “voter”? Everyone, that’s who.
So to reframe properly what Cillizza was actually saying: “I deal in the world as everyone believes it is.” Which is either impossible or complete bullshit.
I think it’s bullshit. He and other journalists who pride themselves on the Rube Goldberg fairness machines that they call “articles” are far too smug, pedantic, and self-serving to really be thinking about the “voters.” They’re just chastising other pundits: Tsk tsk, you small-minded partisan nitwits, you’re forgetting about the voters!
Yes, bullshit. Take what Cillizza and his new CNN colleague Van Jones both said about the moment in Trump’s big address to Congress in February, when the President honored the widow of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a US Navy SEAL killed in the disastrous raid Trump ordered in Yemen.
Granted, and as Cillizza points out in his praise of this moment, it’s standard practice for politicians to exploit grief. Mr. Trump certainly isn’t alone. But when Mr. Trump was asked about that raid in a Fox and Friends interview just hours before the speech, he didn’t take responsibility for it. Instead he put the blame for Owens’ death squarely onto the military: “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do. They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do—the generals—who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.” (“They” referring to the generals; “Ryan” referring to Owens, by his first name.)
In the speech, Mr. Trump told the crowd, as the official White House transcript records it, “‘Ryan is looking down, right now, you know that, and he is very happy because I think he just broke a record.’ (Laughter and applause.)” Mr. Trump meant that CPO Owens was looking down from heaven at his grief-stricken wife, who was crying in front of the cameras as part of a political stunt to trick the nation that he died serving—in an operation for which his commander-in-chief shirked all responsibility two hours ago—and that the soul of Owens was feeling “very happy” because the applause he was getting “broke a record.”
Chris Cillizza literally called this moment a “grace note.” And Van Jones said that Mr. Trump, a racist demagogue, “became President” right then—a two-termer, even. Cillizza also said:
Trump, dare I say, gracefully handed the spotlight to Owens—even taking a few steps back to let her have that moment. For a candidate, a man and a president who has shown a stunning inability to ever make it about anyone other than him, it was a very deft move.
This shows Cillizza’s own stunning inability to speak the truth: Mr. Trump is a piece of shit. The truth is that Mr. Trump should have made that moment—part of it—about him. He should have either accepted responsibility for Owens’ death in front of his widow or held true to what he so “gracefully” said just hours before when she wasn’t in the room: that her son’s death wasn’t his fault. Instead Mr. Trump graciously allowed hundreds of the world’s most powerful people to applaud a weeping war widow at his command, indulged his tumescence in this ego Viagra for a few uncharacteristically quiet moments, and suddenly he’s a fucking two-termer.
Thanks for pointing that out, guys. Really casts this bigoted maniac in another light.
Ah, but Cillizza went on to say this:
Yes, in that moment with Carryn Owens, he showed the best of what he can be. But, earlier in the day when he seemed to place the blame for Ryan Owens’s death at the feet of his generals, he showed a far less appealing side.
Yes: Cillizza knew that what Trump was doing was hypocritical, gross, and offensive to the family and memory of an American soldier who died needlessly on his command, but silver-lining Cillizza chose to play down the disgraceful content in favor of the two-bit showmanship.
So what’s the reason for this kind of praise? It sure isn’t what Trump says. It never is—it’s always how Trump looks, how he sounds, how “presidential” he might seem one night. Right? This praise “for Trump” is only praise for the theater of Trump, the warped “real world of campaign politics” that Cillizza so intrepidly immersed himself in years ago.
Feckless political hacks will tell you they take this stance in the name of fairness and balance. It’s only “balanced,” though, because they’ve put a thumb on the scale. It’s difficult to find anything nice to say about Trump that’s substantive, so you have to do what Cillizza did above: artificially weight the value of appearances. This is, obviously, exactly what the fuck is wrong with American democracy, and is exactly how the fuck Donald J. Trump got elected in the first place.
You can find substance in Mr. Trump, just not a lot. For instance, I respected the fact that he forcefully defended Planned Parenthood’s good work in every single Republican primary debate, in spite of knowing just how far out of synch he was with his audience. That was, weirdly enough, maybe the only policy position he didn’t flip on in the primaries. It wasn’t a radical position by any means, but it sure wasn’t a conservative or Republican position, and he didn’t let the hyperpartisan primaries push him an inch. At the time, it offered some hope of compromise.
But this fake fairness, honoring these outlandish relative truths and this outlandish man… It’s just insulting. For instance, Cillizza cited Hillary Clinton as the worst candidate of 2016. A candidate who wasn’t named Ted Cruz or Jeb! Bush. A candidate who got more votes than the winner of the election. A candidate who didn’t make fun of a handicapped reporter who was critical of her… on camera… at a rally.
We’ve got to snuff out this smug, milquetoast punditry, written purely to agitate some people and comfort others. Call it one way or call it the other, because in this day and age there are hardly any opportunities you’ll be able to call it both and still be honest. In these times, fairness smacks of treachery.
And so it seems politics has caught up with what Cillizza wrote years ago about honoring “the world as voters believe it is.” At the time, it might have been a valiant effort to go toe-to-toe with the hyper-subjectivity of social media, but now it’s quite clearly the exact same bullshit we’re being fed by Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and, yes, Donald Trump. Alternative facts, first legitimized by Chris Cillizza in the name of journalism. He got that scoop.