The war of words between the new Administration and the media continues to escalate. And, it is a war. Donald said, straight up, he is “in a running war with the media”. Did he really? Or did the press manufacture this video? He’s called them dishonest. He’s called them liars. The flap over photos comparing Inauguration Day crowds is just the latest in a long string of skirmishes. The President would have us believe he is the last totally honest person on the face of the earth and bristles at the slightest hint that disputes that. If he is truly that thin-skinned, I shudder to think how he might react to some perceived slight from a foreign leader.
I’ll admit I’m no fan of mainstream media. In my opinion, journalism has devolved from a dispassionate reporting of facts to a mechanism used to mold and manipulate public opinion. I also believe that a free and independent press is absolutely essential to a healthy democracy, a concept first defined in this country in 1776 by the Virginia colonial legislature’s Declaration of Rights:
“The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.”
This would later be condensed and included in the very first amendment to the Constitution in 1791:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
There should be little doubt as to the importance our Founding Fathers placed on this idea.
So here we are in 2017 with a President who tells us to ignore the dishonest press and believe only what he tells us. No cause for suspicion there? It’s not overly autocratic, is it? I’m inherently suspicious of anyone who continually repeats the phrase “Believe me.” So should we?
On November 27th he claimed he won the electoral vote in a “landslide”.
His winning electoral college margin was 306-232, a convincing victory but is it a “landslide”? Hardly. His 306 votes represent 56.88% of the 538 votes. In the 57 previous Presidential elections, 45 of the victors garnered a higher percentage of electoral votes putting Trump’s win near the bottom of the list. His electoral victory, in relative terms, was less than overwhelming. His claim regarding the popular vote is so patently false it deserves naught but to be ignored.
The following day his (then) campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, repeated the misrepresentation, er, the exaggeration. Oh, what the hell. The following day she repeated the lie.
Here are just a few examples of truly “historic” electoral vote “blowouts” Ms. Conway:
|1940||Franklin Roosevelt||449||Wendell Willkie||82|
|1956||Dwight Eisenhower||457||Adlai Stevenson||73|
|1964||Lyndon Johnson||486||Barry Goldwater||52|
|1972||Richard Nixon||520||George McGovern||17|
|1984||Ronald Reagan||525||Walter Mondale||13|
In comparison, Mr. Trump’s puny 74 vote advantage falls far short and fails to qualify, thus the lie is debunked.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump said he would release his tax returns following completion of an audit. Though not a campaign requirement, it has been standard practice in Presidential elections since 1972. Now, however, he says there will be no release, offering the reality of his election as proof that “nobody cares”. “You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, OK? They’re the only ones,” he said. Ms. Conway again parroted her boss saying, “The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated* this all through the election. People didn’t care,” she said. “They voted for him…” I suspect a significant percentage of the 62.9 million people who voted for him probably don’t care but I’d bet an even more significant percentage of the 65.8 million who voted against him do care along with a portion of those who didn’t bother to vote. In view of his extensive global financial interests which carry an unusual level of potential conflicts of interest, wouldn’t it be in the nation’s best interest to know if there are conflicts? Does he have something to hide? Is he not as rich as he claims to be? Has he paid income taxes? Apparently, the public doesn’t need to know.
But the most egregious example (to date, anyway) of the way this Administration appears willing to contort the facts to suit the spin came courtesy of none other than Ms. Conway herself. She has introduced us to the concept of “alternative facts”. We must at least give her credit for coming up with a novel term for “lies”.
In his first appearance as White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer lashed out at the media for making “deliberately false” statements about crowd size at the inauguration. He then went on to present a series of readily disproved “facts” supporting his claim that:
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
In a subsequent interview on Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd questioned Ms. Conway why the President would ask his press secretary to deliver obviously false statements on his first meeting with the media. When pressed, Ms. Conway replied, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that.” Obviously taken aback, Todd interrupted saying, “Wait a minute. Alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered . . . were just not true. Alternative facts are not facts; they’re falsehoods.” Watch it for yourself. While we’re grateful to Ms. Conway for attempting to expand our understanding of the truth, Mr. Todd is to be commended for not allowing her to get away with it. But maybe we should applaud her willingness to be so open about the White House spewing forth blatant falsifications.
And so it is that we enter a dangerous era of the alternative fact, where truth can (and apparently will) be whatever the President wants it to be. Dangerous because this Administration appears to be laying the groundwork for an already suspect press to be more easily portrayed as purveyors of “fake news” should it dare to be critical of the White House or its policies. This Administration, like others before it, will likely take on the persona of its leader. This suggests that it will be combative, self-aggrandizing, pretentious, prone to histrionics and, above all, overly sensitive to the most minute of criticisms. It’s going to get even more difficult for the press to ferret out and separate actual fact from alternative fact and to maintain its already thin credibility. It will be doubly difficult for Mr. and Mrs. Concerned Citizen to determine the veracity of what’s being fed to them as news.
A willingness to present “alternative facts” allows for multiple truths. The Administration appears to be saying, “There’s your truth and there’s our truth. Ours Trumps yours.”
Better buckle up, buttercup. Looks like it’s going to be a rough ride.
* Litigated? Did someone or some entity file a lawsuit I haven’t heard about attempting to compel him to release the tax returns? Shame on me if I missed that…