Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr (right) and the man to whom he remains loyal. U.S. Marshals Serice CC 2.0
Delivering the keynote address at the California News Publishers Association’s annual convention last Wednesday, former Attorney General William Barr unleashed a relentless attack against the media.
The audience of a couple hundred publishers, editors, and reporters in the ballroom at the swanky Sawyer Hotel in downtown Sacramento sat in what may have been stunned silence as Barr calmly and deliberately made this case: The nation’s news media is responsible for creating a culture of “mendacity and polarization” in which “people are ready to accept conspiracy theories” as truth.
The title of CNPA’s CapCon 2023 was “Rebuilding Trust in an Age of Disinformation.” Barr’s response to that prompt was unambiguous: You journalists do not deserve to be trusted.
The two-time Attorney General, who served under George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump, said he has had a “ringside seat” from which to witness a “media-driven disinformation" campaign for three decades. To illustrate, he reached back to a 1992 episode, still remembered in political circles, in which Pres. Bush was portrayed as an elitist out of touch with the lives of most Americans.
Barr recalled a cheeky page-one New York Times headline: “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed.” He then went into painful detail to prove that the article under the headline was misleading.
Barr pointed out, for instance, that the event did not take place in a supermarket, as the headline suggested, but at a supermarket industry convention—a fact that was made perfectly clear in the article itself. Furthermore, he said, the grocery-store scanner technology that “amazed” Bush—as though he’d never seen a supermarket scanner before—was actually a new generation of scanner technology and …. I won’t go into any more detail. But the former AG was pretty worked up.
Barr concluded by saying he had first-hand knowledge that the grocers’ “interaction with Trump,” as portrayed in the article, was completely misleading.
Yes. In describing the event that precipitated his deep distrust of the American press, Bill Barr got his presidents mixed up.
While not every slip of the tongue is Freudian, this one seemed to be rooted in trauma. “To this day,” Barr continued, the supermarket scanner story “is repeated ad nauseam.” And witnessing him in the flesh, delivering a longish rant, I did get the sense that the former Attorney General is honestly sickened by his perception of the national press.
A Defensive Attack
In a 45-plus-minute talk that ranged from rambling to riveting, Barr’s tone throughout was that of a pained victim. The same tone can be felt in an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times the following day.
Reporter Laurel Rosenhall interviewed Barr in Sacramento following his CNPA speech. Her article included Barr’s first response to damning new revelations about his supervision of a bogus investigation into what he and Trump refer to as the Russiagate “witch hunt.”
Speaking to the roomfull of California journalists, Barr insisted that the “Russia-collusion narrative” is perhaps the biggest of the media’s big lies.
“This can fairly be described as disinformation,” he said, granting that it’s impossible to know if the story told in the nation’s news outlets is made up of "deliberate lies, or reckless disregard for the truth” (the latter phrase drawn directly from US libel law).
Of course, this should not have surprised anyone in the ballroom. Barr is, let’s recall, the man who invented the false narrative that the Mueller Report contained “total and complete exoneration.”
And still, listening to this powerful, hyperarticulate Trumpian warrior carefully assemble his specious argument, I found myself slowly going into shock. The complex web of distorted reality had a mind-numbing effect. When it was over I politely applauded, as did most everyone in the room.
It was the most vicious attack against my profession, and the truth we defend, that I’d ever witnessed, and my head was spinning like I was coldcocked.
Hannah Arendt described this totalitarian gambit decades ago:
The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.
Barr’s keynote address to California’s preeminent journalistic quorum was, I realize now, a virtuosic display of the “always-attack” intellectual strategy developed by his soulmate-turned-nemesis Steve Bannon. It’s a trick authoritarians mastered long ago. The war against truth being waged by Donald Trump and his allies, including William Barr, is a bloody battle with no rules. I’m glad I got to see it up close.