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Columbia Journalism Review

Don’t Let Trump Get Away with ‘Alternative Facts’

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer makes a statement to members of the media at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo:  Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Call them what you will—whoppers, untruths, lies—but casual falsehoods have been the hallmark of President Donald Trump’s young political career.

The latest example came on Saturday, when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer berated journalists for “deliberately false reporting” on the underwhelming attendance for Trump’s inauguration. Spicer’s error-ridden diatribe—on his first day in the taxpayer-funded job—came after hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Washington, New York and elsewhere to protest Trump’s ascent to power.

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said of Friday’s ceremonies, contradicting all available evidence.

Such bald-faced deception is the new reality under the Trump Administration. Whereas every president for the past century has attempted to mold public opinion by spinning information, taking messages directly to voters, and selectively curtailing press access, Trump obstructs a fact-based debate like none of his predecessors. With seemingly shameless fibs—big and small—the president and his aides have served to cast doubt on the very notion of objective truth.

"With seemingly shameless fibs—big and small—the president and his aides have served to cast doubt on the very notion of objective truth."

Take Trump’s years of lies about former President Barack Obama’s birthplace. Or his repeated assertions that he initially opposed the Iraq War. Or his claims of widespread voter fraud. The list goes on; the press corps’ fact-checkers continue working overtime.

Spicer’s easily disprovable statement Saturday was a minor fabrication, but such behavior is more ominous now that Trump is in power. The public needs accurate information to make informed political decisions. The new government, meanwhile, is already showing a willingness to make that task more difficult. 


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Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign strategist-turned TV spin-doctor, explained Sunday on Meet the Press that Spicer was merely offering “alternative facts” about the inaugural turnout. The phrasing carries more than a whiff of propaganda. 

Trump’s seeming imperviousness to being caught in a lie stems largely from a fragmented and increasingly partisan media environment. Though newspapers and networks often call out his falsehoods, the reality TV star can tweet directly to his huge social media audience and let right-wing media mouthpieces do the rest of the work. Digital filter bubbles and the press’ historically low levels of public trust work in tandem to further buffer Trumpworld from true facts.

The new administration has every right to contest incorrect or unfair coverage. But Trump & Co. have gone a step beyond, using their bully pulpit to paint a monolithic “crooked media” as an oppositional force. Increasing partisanship makes such attacks particularly effective.

The new dynamic fomented seemingly endless handwringing by the mainstream media during the campaign. Now, they must ready themselves and the public for four years of such misinformation, not only by calling out falsehoods early and often in individual stories, but also contextualizing them within Trump’s long history of actively distorting facts.  

On Sunday, Meet the Press Moderator Chuck Todd aggressively pushed back on Conway’s “alternative facts.” The New York Times likewise described the president’s “falsehoods” in a front-page headline. More of such no-nonsense treatment will be in order. 

This weekend’s episode is no doubt the first of many such collision points between a diminished news media and the president it’s tasked with holding to account. While it’s in Trump’s interest to delegitimize the press, however, it’s in the public’s to fight against efforts to delegitimize the truth.

David Uberti

David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.

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