In the annals of New York Times corrections, this one is a doozy:
Correction: February 25, 2017
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Sean Spicer’s upbringing. He was New England bred, having been raised in Rhode Island; he was not “New England born.” (Mr. Spicer would not go on the record and give the correct facts pertaining to his birthplace.)
The subject of the story — President Donald Trump's struggles with the aggressive Washington press corps — is actually less important than what that correction tells you about his administration's treatment of the media. It is a clear illustration of how Trump’s continuing verbal war on the media plays out in real time.
Read that last sentence again. The White House press secretary — whose sole job is to communicate with the media — refused to answer questions about where he was born.
You can imagine a parallel universe where Spicer, like most past press secretaries of both parties, might have refused to comment about sensitive issues of national security.
But that wasn't what happened here. Spicer — memorably portrayed by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live as a raging, nearly unhinged bully — refused to answer a basic and anodyne question about his biography.
This came just days after Spicer drew widespread condemnation for pointedly excluding several mainstream media outlets, including the Times, from a routine gaggle with reporters.
It's easy to focus on Trump’s nonstop series of attacks on the press, which he now regularly describes as an “enemy of the people.”
But Spicer illustrates something much less attention-grabbing but in some ways just as dangerous: a White House that refuses to answer basic questions.
To be fair, when they do answer questions, many of those answers turn out to be false.
Spicer had recently taken to Twitter to deny a report by CBS's Major Garrett that said Trump’s nominee to run the Navy was set to withdraw from consideration. On Sunday, the nominee, Philip Bilden, did just that.
As my colleague Matt Yglesias notes:
If the press secretary habitually tells obvious lies (like about Inauguration Day crowd sizes) or says plausible-sounding things that later turn out to be false (like indignantly denying Garrett’s story), then he ends up like the proverbial boy who cried wolf.
Spicer, like his boss, routinely uses his lectern to bash the press or knowingly utter falsehoods. But he’s doing something else here: not lying so much as simply refusing to do a basic part of his job.
The problems that kind of refusal causes are magnified exponentially by the fact that key agencies like the Pentagon and State Department still don’t have full-time press people, which means in many cases the only place reporters can go for information is the White House itself.
Take the State Department, which as I wrote last week has largely suspended its normal interactions with the press. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to meet with reporters, and the daily press conferences the department has held since the 1950s haven’t taken place for more than a month.
With no other spokespeople to turn to, reporters across Washington have little choice but to turn to Spicer. As the New York Times was just reminded, Sean Spicer seems to have very little interest in helping them do even basic parts of their jobs.
That’s a problem now; it will be a much bigger and more dangerous one when there’s an actual crisis that leaves average Americans clamoring for accurate information. Unless something changes, this White House may be unable, or unwilling, to give it to them.