All aboard the outrage bus. White House press spokesman Sean Spicer in his briefing on Tuesday compared Assad of Syria with Adolf Hitler and observed that even Hitler did not gas his own people.
When news of this development popped up on Twitter, I like many others retweeted it because it was interesting and possibly revealing of the Trumpian mindset. Then, on a long car journey last night, I heard it clipped on the BBC Radio 4 bulletin and followed with statement from the Anne Frank Centre, who accused Spicer of engaging in Holocaust denial.
Hold on, Spicer hadn’t denied the Holocaust. He just hadn’t.
It is clear listening back to the tape that Trump’s spokesman was trying, in an inept fashion, to make the point that Hitler did not in battle drop bombs containing chemical weapons on Germans. This rather overlooks the fact that he gassed Jews and others from Germany and Eastern Europe in makeshift mobile battlefield gas chambers in vans and then by the million in extermination camps. There is a distinction between the two, but the way Spicer phrased it was beyond poor.
A little later in the briefing Spicer realised what a fool he was making of himself, and he burbled on some more, even dropping in a stray “innocent people” that made it even worse.
“In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable,” Spicer said later. He then went on CNN to grovel. The increasingly influential Ivanka Trump, and her observant husband Jared Kushner, are on a mission to “normalise” Trump and the worst crime in the Trump White House, it is said, is “making dad look bad.”
It is quite an achievement, but Spicer had made “dad look bad” with his Holocaust mind melt. It’s a mess. Spicer made a twit of himself, but this is surprising, after the events of the last year, how exactly?
There are three simple inter-related reasons why gross over-reaction by the media to these stories is a mistake that does long-term harm:
1) Punters, readers, seem to increasingly loathe much of the media, judging that it jumps on every gaffe or slip amplified by social media and then works itself into a pious, hysterical state. Are they wrong? This row – spokesman makes twit of himself – plays right into that for anyone who believes the following. It’s the media, they (we), who twist everything. The guy slipped up a bit but you know what he was trying to say, those journalists are such jerks.
2) Genuine Holocaust denial – denial of one of the worst crimes in history – seems to be on the rise, via the extreme right and extreme left in the US and Europe. This is deeply troubling and the emphasis should be on calmly pointing this out, and reminding people what happened and persuading them that without vigilance it could happen again. Revving up the engine on the outrage bus is an impediment to this effort, not a help. Exaggeration dulls the senses.
3) The Trump team is under scrutiny on a range of subjects, including over its ties to Russia. We’re only three months in and there could easily be more scandals to come. That being the case, the media in reporting these developments will need when the times comes to be able to draw on a reservoir of trust that is already running dry. If it all merges into a continuation of the same rolling fake row, then people will stop listening when a real scandal – such as Russian collusion – comes to a culmination.
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