Watch out, we’ve entered a tornado-strength spin zone—a place full of what Counselor-to-the-President Conway famously termed “alternative facts.” A Washington Examiner reporter and her editors say Conway did threaten her. The Examiner has published audio and a transcript that they say proves the point. Conway says there was nothing like a threat involved, telling reporters in an exchange outside the White House, “Stop being so silly” and “if I threaten someone, you’ll know it.”
Who’s in the right here? Should the Examiner have unveiled what was ostensibly an “off the record” call? Or did Conway waive any such privilege and protection by not actually negotiating any such understanding when she got on the line? (Conway says she never considered the call off the record—which could just be spin—but that the reporter did, and therefore, by implication, is a weasel to publish it.)
Everyone’s got their bias filter bubbles going. They’re frothing away, using each new fact or detail to dig deeper into their existing views. Conway is a smart strategist who knows exactly what she’s doing! Conway is a bully who’s out of control and has been rightfully exposed! Conway is a heroic feminist, sticking up for her rights and fighting sexism! Conway is a witch-woman from Hades! Arguments about the story—both what exactly happened and what exactly it means–are keeping Google algorithms busy. The contretemps has even made it to that high-profile gabfest of contrarian “hot topic” assertion, The View, which showcased a cogent debate on the matter.
Let’s examine a few basics amid the storm:
Kellyanne Conway is married to George Conway, who has famously and repeatedly tangled with President Trump in the past two years. Notable highlights: Trump calling Conway “Mister Kellyanne Conway” and “a stone cold LOSER” on Twitter; George calling Trump mentally “unfit for office” in a lengthy essay in The Atlantic. While the Conways have often seemed fine with stoking their odd-couple public profile, Conway has also in the past decried the focus on her marriage as sexist, insisting that no powerful husband with a wife who tweeted digs at his boss would be treated the same way.
That’s where Caitlin Yilek comes in. Yilek is the 29-year-old Examiner staffer who filed a story about Conway on October 22. Titled “Trump floats Kellyanne Conway as chief of staff,” the piece basically repurposed an earlier speculative story from Bloomberg that Conway might step into the White House Chief of Staff role. Yilek wrote: “Conway would likely face pushback from Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who also works in the White House. Conway and Kushner are not friendly, two people familiar with the matter said. Conway has been in the middle of Trump’s barbs with her husband, George, a conservative lawyer who frequently makes headlines for his criticism of the president.”
That “in the middle of” wording apparently enraged Conway. In her remarkable harangue of Yilek, Conway insisted that this amounted to speculation about Conway’s “feelings,” and also constituted an invasion of her marriage. Yilek responds at one point, “Would you like to dispute that on the record? I would be happy to put that in my story.” Conway’s nasty, nonsensical response: “Nobody read your story.” (Um…you mean the story you’re calling to rant about?)
The fact that Yilek clearly raises the prospect of going “on the record” here raises ethical questions. Clearly Yilek believed this was “off the record.” But on reflection, she and the paper were apparently moved to invalidate that tacit agreement by Conway’s concluding remarks. Conway said to Yilek: “So, listen, if you’re going to cover my personal life… then we’re welcome to do the same around here. If it has nothing to do with my job, which it doesn’t… then we’re either going to expect you to cover everybody’s personal life or we’re going to start covering them over here.”
“Over here” seems to mean the White House. And that’s where everyone’s position on this story tends to diverge. Was this a threat to use the machinery of government to make trouble for Yilek? Was it just a moment of anger? Should this whole exchange have been paraphrased by the Examiner—indirectly quoted—instead of being laid out in detail online? Or was that necessary for full context?
It could be argued that this whole thing is a big ball of wrong that nobody—not Conway, not Yilek, and not the editors at Washington Examiner—handled especially well. Why? Because there are two violations of norms going on here: Conway shouldn’t get away with such bullying, and the paper didn’t need to release the full audio and transcript to address that bullying if the on-the-record status was murky (whether Conway was okay with that or not). Time for some lateral reading as this story develops, folks. And an acknowledgement that in a poisonously partisan atmosphere, straight news reporting can boil over into public score-settling in a flash.