Our president treats the press as if they’re in the middle of a creepy marital argument. He tells his friends that journalists are nasty, disrespectful little con artists who are interested only in betraying him. Journalists are telling their side of the story, offering details about a moody and undisciplined man’s ignorance and superficiality.
Have you ever argued with a spouse? (I haven’t, of course, but I’ve heard that such things happen.)
When disagreements occur, there are often differences of opinion, both in the moment and after the fact, concerning exactly what was said by whom. The precise wording of particular sentiments assume a sometimes disproportionate significance.
If, for example, one person says, “Last weekend was a mess,” but the other person hears, “You were a mess last weekend,” the conversation might not end with a hug and kiss. It probably wouldn’t have anyway, because if the subject is messy, we’re already on unstable ground.
And that’s why it’s even more important to try to figure out the truth: Before going forward, you have to decide and agree upon what was said and what was meant.
Given that there are actual distinctions between the two statements, it would be at the least careless and at the worst profoundly deleterious to future exchanges if the matter weren’t cleared up. You can listen to the Wall Street Journal’s tape of its reporters’ interview with the president and hear him say he “probably has a good relationship” with Kim Jong Un, for example. It’s there. It’s not a matter of opinion.
Words matter. They matter when they’re spoken, when they’re heard and when they’re remembered.
Folks started writing things down in the first place because people knew they needed to agree on what was remembered collectively and not rely on a bunch of contradictory statements.
It’s why documents were written in ink and sealed with hot wax: It was crucial for words to remain in their original configuration in order to demonstrate their authenticity. A scroll with a bunch of cross-outs, different handwriting, blobs and hasty eraser marks wouldn’t look too hot as the founding statement of a nation when it’s encased in glass in a museum.
Journalists have documents on their side. They have recordings.
The president is supposed to tell the truth, but Trump’s “truth,” like many of his words, is often surrounded by quotations marks the way he is surrounded by the Secret Service.
In fact, Trump seems to believe that much of the English language needs quotation marks around it, as if words need training wheels before they can be sent out on their own.
Journalists don’t get to use quotation marks unless they’re quoting somebody. They have to rely on verifiable evidence and fact-check their sources. They stake their professional lives on accuracy. Facts are not subjective, even if they are subject to interpretation. The truth is non-negotiable.
Think of it this way: Have you been pulled over for speeding? (I haven’t, of course, but I’ve heard that such things happen.) You see the reds and blues, you pull over, you roll down the window and, in the most innocent voice you’ve used since your First Communion, you ask, “What’s the problem, officer?”
In an even tone, officer replies, “You were going 40 in a 35 miles-per-hour zone.” Reverting to your normal voice, you blurt out, “Impossible! Other cars were passing me like I was Amish. Why didn’t you pull them over?”
As the officer writes you a ticket, she explains, “The radar clocked you at 40.” Radar guns are specialized tools requiring careful calibration. Yes, there have been mistakes (one infamous case in Florida clocked a car going 28 and a palm tree going 86) but you know they’re usually correct.
It’s natural for couples to argue. It’s natural to resent getting a ticket. It’s typical to feel as if you’re the one who knows the real story.
But it’s not right for the president to lie and then insist he was telling the truth. Listen to what he says, not what he says about what he thought he said. Read what he said, not the unsealed and crossed out revision of what he thought he should have said. This is one family fight that involves us all.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.