Why is an evangelical megachurch podcast talking about ‘fake news’?

On June 27, many media watchers said the monologue given by White House reporter and Sentinel Newspapers Executive Editor Brian Karem was a turning point in the dysfunctional relationship between the Trump Administration — particularly its spokespeople at the time, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders — and those media outlets and reporters who cover them.

On that day, during one of the few televised briefings at the White House, after a Q/A between Sanders and Breitbart, the conservative website Trump invited into press briefings, Karem said Sanders was enflaming Americans by her statements bashing the media for their Russian investigation stories. Sanders replied that “the dishonesty that often takes place by the news media” is the real story. [See full exchange here.]

Sanders at that point had replaced Spicer as the one who answers the media’s questions, when they are answered at all. Why is not entirely clear but it seems her performance — brash, unapologetic, even what Karem has called “bullying” — is what Trump wanted (and what he later proceeded to ensure by firing Spicer and hiring as his new press secretary Anthony Scaramucci, whose immediately unprofessional commentary set off lively public debate on social media).

This Sanders is nearly the same Sanders who appeared on the same day on the “Life and Leadership Today” podcast of Dr. Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas (home to Sanders’ famous father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee) and immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention. (For more info on Floyd and his views on Trump, see here and here.)

I say “nearly” because in that interview, Sanders said that most reporters did their job well, seeking the truth. But outside that one line, the rest was vintage media bashing from Sanders. The importance of this criticism — often without evidence — of the media on a podcast of a pastor who claims the largest evangelical audience in the nation needs to be made clear. It is a solid example of why so many evangelicals both voted for Trump and continue to support him. It is also a good place to fact-check these criticisms.

First, there is Floyd’s interview skills. He offered no criticism, no pushback, and no questions that challenged Sanders. The questions he did ask were loaded with not only faulty assumptions, but offered his viewpoint. Granted he was not acting as a journalist. But as a moral leader, he could have noted lies and misstatements from Sanders and Trump. Instead, he asked her how a listener might “discern the truth” when looking at the media today. Floyd noted that each media outlet has “a different perspective” on the story, yet “truth is truth.” In short, he is saying that “truth” can’t be found in the media because of these different “perspectives.”

Sanders replied: The biggest problem “I think in the media is that there’s no accountability left. I mean it used to be that nothing went to print before 6 or 7 editors looked at. Now essentially anyone with an iPhone can be a reporter,” adding later: “None of it has to be true. None of it has to be balanced. There’s no accountability.”

This generalization is not only faulty rhetoric, it offers no evidence to support its claim. If for instance she was referring to the recent retraction of a story by CNN about the link between a Trump ally and Russia, her claim of “no accountability” was false on its face. Three people resigned from CNN. As for lack of editing, in this case CNN standards were not followed and the network admitted that. But even the story’s main subject — that Trump ally, Scaramucci, who is now the newly fired press secretary — had tweeted that CNN’s retraction was “classy” and he was “moving on.”

Next, Floyd admitted he was “blown away” by the media’s use of anonymous sources. He even sarcastically asked “who are anonymous sources?” Sanders replied with sarcasm of her own: it’s usually the “check-out guys at the local sandwich shop.”

Sanders then offered her blunt criticism, urging people to read “non-media or non-partisan” information on legislation so they could “look at the facts instead of the commentary.”

It is hypocrisy because of the “commentary” and sometimes lies tweeted almost daily by Trump and his echo on Fox News. It is also hypocrisy because the answer Sanders gave to the Breitbart reporter that inflamed Karem was essentially commentary.

But this is more than hypocrisy. It is also hypocrisy being condoned by a pastor who teaches thousands by the week.

Earlier in the interview in response to a question about how Sanders handles the hectic media environment in the White House, Sanders said: “I think if everybody just kind of took a deep breath and remembered” respect they could “bring a little bit more civility back to this process. I think that goes from everything down to the very bottom level at the home to the highest levels in government.”

Here we have Trump’s spokesperson suggesting either her boss is not civil or that somehow he is. I say “somehow” because Trump consistently labels the media as “fake news.” And it would take difficult if not impossible mental gymnastics to argue Sanders was respectful or civil in her comments on July 27.

Again, what is more remarkable is the silence of Floyd. If he is representative of the more than 675,000 (60 percent) who voted for Trump, it’s clear they see the media as he does. And Sanders had become their voice.

When Sanders spoke of herself in her role as White House spokeswoman, she noted: “My ultimate goal every day when I go out there obviously is not only to promote the president’s message and the president’s agenda but to be truthful, to be honest, to be transparent. And certainly the thing I file in the back of my mind is the millions of people watching and the three kids I have at home. So my goal always is to in anything I say, anything that comes out of my mouth, that it is something I would want them comfortable hearing and also something I would never have to explain or apologize for.”

Floyd did have a response to this: “I love that perspective.”

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