Jonathan Swan does journalism with his face

Jonathan Swan.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Screenshot/YouTube, iStock)

There are 43 muscles in the human face and Jonathan Swan flexed all of them during his recent interview with the president of the United States, which aired Monday night on HBO. Throughout the 40-minute conversation, Swan's brow furrowed, his eyes squinted and bulged, his nose wrinkled. Sometimes his jaw would actually hang open, a cartoonish epitome of "incredulous."

Such open expressions of disbelief when speaking with President Trump could arguably be considered rude (as if Trump hasn't rolled his eyes and mocked interviewers himself). But Swan's face served a greater journalistic role during the interview than fueling great memes: it fact-checked a leader who is not accustomed to pushback.

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Trump has long escaped close scrutiny in his interviews, dating back to when he was still a candidate. Today, "Trump gets his share of pointed questions, but in terms of standards, Trump's treatment in most interviews is not so different from that of his predecessors — some softballs, some tough questions, a handful of real-time fact-checks," The New Republic recently wrote. "The problem, however, is that unlike his presidential forebears, Trump lies constantly."

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It is the "overabundance of available material" to fact-check that has made it difficult for veteran journalists like Bill Hemmer, Bret Baier, David Muir, and Chuck Todd to know what, precisely, to call out, CNN notes. That's where Swan's face comes in handy. While he still verbally pushes back on Trump's falsehoods, his expressions do the heavy-lifting of continuously doubting the president's parade of absurd claims, like that "manuals" and "books" say you shouldn't conduct too many COVID-19 tests. Swan's expression is also what telegraphs to viewers that Trump's rambling during an exchange about charts is, indeed, utterly incoherent — wearing a polite listening face instead would have been misleading. Sometimes Swan simply looks helpless, serving to remind us of the torrent of falsehoods we're hearing.

Swan's expressions haven't always been applauded. In 2018, the reporter was described as a "bootlicker" for his banter and look of apparent delight when walking the president into acknowledging that he intended to end birthright citizenship ("Never trust a reporter who bounces in his chair with glee," The Intercept blasted). As Swan, a print journalist, later wrote to his colleagues in apology: "I'm not used to having my facial expression recorded … but what you saw was authentic surprise."

Turns out it's a good thing for us all that he's an open book.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.