On covering dishonesty, Pompeo should be careful what he wishes for

Updated

Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia, where there’s obviously considerable interest in the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities and those responsible. While the chief U.S. diplomat has accused Iran, the Houthis in Yemen have claimed responsibility.

It was against this backdrop that Pompeo spoke with reporters and gave journalists some guidance on the kind of coverage he’d like to see from independent news outlets.

“[B]y the way, that makes the Houthis’ claims false, right. Just so we’re tracking back to your original question, that means these people lie. And so whatever you report about them, you say, ‘The Houthis said…,’ you should say, ‘The well-known, frequently lying Houthis have said the following….’

“This is important, because you ought not report them as if these are truth-tellers, as if these are people who aren’t completely under the boot of the Iranians, and who would not at the direction of the Iranians lay claim to attacks which they did not engage in, which clearly was the case here.

“So there you go. Whenever you say ‘Houthis,’ you should begin with, ‘The well-known, frequently-known-to-lie Houthis.’ And then you can write whatever it is they say. And you would have – that would be good reporting.”

Hmm.

To be sure, there are heightened tensions in the Middle East following a violent attack in Saudi Arabia. Tensions are high; the White House is weighing some highly provocative options; Iran isn’t doing much to lower the temperature; and there’s a great deal of uncertainty about how this will play out in the near future.

For that matter, it’s also true that the Houthis in Yemen, eager to raise their visibility and relevance, have made dubious claims.

But if Mike Pompeo wants to give journalists advice on how best to cover those with dubious credibility, the secretary of State should probably be careful what he wishes for.

A Washington Post analysis helped drive the point home:

Trump has uttered more than 12,000 false or misleading things as president. He is not the Houthis, nor are his falsehoods the same as theirs. But there are lots of falsehoods. Whether any individual false claim was made knowingly and with intent to deceive is often difficult to ascertain, which is why much of the media continues to resist the L-word. There have been instances in which The Washington Post and the New York Times, though, have applied that label to something Trump clearly knew better about at the time. That includes when Trump denied knowledge of a hush-money payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels that he we later found out he was involved in.

Pompeo would apparently like us to do this more, judging by his comments Wednesday. By his logic, Trump has simply said too many false things for us to treat him like any other source in a story.

Quite right. By Pompeo’s dictum, media references to “Donald Trump” should necessarily begin with, “The well-known, frequently-known-to-lie Donald Trump.” This, according to the secretary of State’s logic, would be “good reporting.”

After all, to do anything less would be to convey to news consumers that the sitting American president is a credible figure whose reputation for truth-telling is intact. Since it’s not, Pompeo seems to believe professional journalists have a responsibility to alert the public to those who have earned a reputation for dishonesty.

According to the official transcript, reporters laughed yesterday at Pompeo’s comments. Perhaps it’s because they were aware of the irony?