Appearing at the annual Radio and Television News Correspondents Association dinner in March 2004, just as his reelection campaign was gearing up, President George W. Bush continued the black-tie evening’s tradition and set aside some moments in his address to poke fun at himself.
The punchline that year: Bush couldn’t find Saddam Hussein’s weapons of the mass destruction; the WMDs that had served as the rationale for launching the invasion of Iraq one year earlier.
As the lights at the Washington Hilton ballroom dimmed, Bush narrated a “White House Election-Year Album,” and photos flashed on the screen behind him. One slide showed Bush in the Oval Office, searching under a piece of furniture. “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere,” he told the audience. The slideshow continued with him checking different parts of his office. “Nope, no weapons over there,” he said, “Maybe under here.”
The crowd loved it. (Bush can’t find the WMDs!) “Laughter erupted from the crowd of journalists, politicians and their guests then and at other times during Bush’s remarks,” NBC reported.
Reporters joined Bush in having a good laugh at the acknowledgement that the Republican administration’s premise for a preemptive invasion had been built on WMDs, which still could not be found.
That was the joke.
Even after Democrats objected, insisting it was tasteless to joke about WMDs while U.S. military men and women were dying in Iraq, Beltway journalists backed Bush. “The pictures were funny,” Washington Post news reporter Ceci Connolly announced on Fox News. “I laughed at the photos.”
Fast-forward to last Friday when White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the new (and robust) U.S. employment numbers, and specifically whether President Donald Trump accepted them as being accurate considering during the campaign he routinely insisted U.S. unemployment figures were rigged and phony. (At one point he suggested the real unemployment rate was 42 percent!) Unable to contain his smile, Spicer responded, “I talked to the president prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly. They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”
And with that, the press room broke into hearty laughter. Reporters joined Spicer in having a good guffaw at the suggestion that the Republican nominee had lied about unemployment figures during the campaign in an overt effort to undercut voters’ faith in the government, and was now basically conceding he had lied.
That was the joke.
“It’s a pretty good indicator of how much Trump has succeeded in lowering the bar in terms of standards of conduct,” wrote Vox’s Matthew Yglesias.
While laughing about Trump's mendacity on employment numbers isn't as outwardly egregious as laughing along with Bush's WMD bit, normalizing Trump’s radical agenda -- and especially his penchant for casual lying-- is not funny, nor should it be treated in a lighthearted manner. (Just like laughing about WMDs was a really bad idea for journalists.) Lying about employment figures and propagating the dark theme that the U.S. government constantly lies to citizens, even about non-controversial issues like jobs statistics, is dangerous. And it doesn’t deserve a laugh track.
Note that right after the election, The New York Times invited Trump for a meeting with the publisher and then a round-table discussion with some reporters and columnists. This came just days after Trump met with television news executives and loudly berated them for being dishonest. Yet the transcripts of the newspaper event showed laughter broke out repeatedly between Trump and the staffers.
That seemed like an odd way to treat someone who campaigned on an offensive, anti-media message, and who once mocked a Times reporter with a physical disability during a campaign rally. Then again, that meeting was back in November, and maybe that laughter reflected nervous attempts by Times journalists to mend some fences with the incoming president.
Today, given Trump’s radical agenda and his off-the-charts attacks on the free press, it’s hard to imagine any circumstances where journalists should be laughing along with Trump or his spokesman.
And that was the problem with Friday’s feel-good press briefing outburst. It sent a troubling message, which was, ‘We get that Trump’s a liar, and we get that Spicer lies on his behalf daily. We’re all in on this weird, kabuki theater production together and when Spicer occasionally punctures/acknowledges the performance -- when he concedes the whole premise is built on obvious falsehoods -- it’s actually kind of funny.’
But here’s the thing: If the press thinks Trump having lied about unemployment numbers is funny, what else will soon be dubbed hilarious? Weeks from now will White House reporters break into laughter if Spicer ever admits Trump has been lying about having Mexico pay for the border wall? Or that Trump lied about the new Republican health care plan covering “everybody”? Or that he lied about voter fraud, being the target of never-ending IRS audits, and about President Barack Obama having wiretapped Trump Tower?
Here’s the other key point about why the belly laughs were so out of place: Spicer lies all the time. “It's gotten to the point where even Sean Spicer's Wednesday announcement that Donald Trump would not scrap the Easter Egg Roll might prompt a skeptic to wonder, ‘Is he being truthful?’" James Warren recently noted at Poynter.org.
And this administration lies all the time, and about deadly serious topics, such as health care coverage:
Even for the Trump Administration, the number of obvious lies being told on this morning's Sunday shows is breathtaking. https://t.co/4kgAxHvnl9
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) March 12, 2017
Meanwhile, keep in mind that the press briefing laughs came amid a bulldozer effort by the Trump White House to undercut the free press in America, in part by locking out journalists from reporting on how the government functions under Trump.
On the eve of Spicer’s joke about unemployment numbers, word got out that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasn’t going to allow journalists to travel with him on his trip to Asia this week. It’s an unprecedented move designed to block media access. Despite that new setback, there reporters were on Friday, laughing it up with Spicer and sharing a chuckle about Trump being a congenital liar.