Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

President-elect Donald Trump with top aide Kellyanne Conway. (Photo: Mark Wilson, Getty Images)

Alternative "Facts" and the Fourth Estate

Jesselyn Radack


Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, famously coined the Orwellian phrase "alternative facts" when pressed about flat out lies told the previous day by White House press secretary Sean Spicer regarding the crowd size at President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The dictionary definition of a "fact" is a piece of information presented as having an objective reality. Accordingly, the term "alternative fact" is itself is an oxymoron. A fact is both indisputable and immutable. Having "alternatives" to a fact undermines its very meaning.

These semantic gymnastics are compounded by Trump’s fundamental and alarming misunderstanding of the role of the three branches of government and the media. The attempt by the Executive branch to recast the role of the media as the mouthpiece of the administration is dangerous. The media is the government’s watchdog, not its lap dog.

Sources and whistleblowers will be more important than ever in a Trump administration as the "facts" presented at White House press conferences stray farther and farther from the truth. Some of this misinformation may seem objectively harmless, like inflating the number of people who attended the President’s inauguration. But other facts are of historical import; for example, the botched U.S. commando raid in Yemen—the first ordered by President Trump—resulted in the death of innocent women and children. The White House persisted in calling the raid a successful operation.

Trump’s antipathy for the media is hard to understand, given that Trump is himself a creation and creature of the media, and his election is due in large measure to its hype. Perhaps the media bears some responsibility in being too slow to stand up for whistleblowers and sources, compounded by its eagerness to grant anonymity and credibility to government officials during the Obama administration. But, now, the media must embrace its role as an aggressive monitor of the Executive branch, and that role must include robust protection for non-official sources and whistleblowers.

Given the Obama administration’s unfortunate legacy of prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, arguing against a legally-protected privilege between reporters and sources, and enacting workplace surveillance policies like the Insider Threat Program, the stage is set for a president like Trump to use and expand these chilling tools to quash the truth and spread falsehoods about critical matters of national security.

The Trump White House has been plagued by leaks, but seepage from the apparent chaos in the West Wing is not the only source the public will need. The U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies claim vast surveillance and operational powers, including the power to capture, interrogate, and kill suspected terrorists. When the President so readily spreads false propagandist narratives, investigative journalists and their sources must forcefully embrace their role as the "Fourth Estate."

© 2014
Jesselyn Radack

Jesselyn Radack

Jesselyn Radack is a national security and human rights attorney who heads the 'Whistleblower & Source Protection' project at ExposeFacts. Follow her on Twitter: @JesselynRadack

Progressives Say 'Do What the People Want and Tax the Rich' to Pay for Infrastructure

"It is obvious that if we're going to address the needs of working families in this country, we need revenue," says Sen. Bernie Sanders, "and one way that we get that revenue is by demanding that the wealthiest people, the largest corporations are paying their fair share."

Jessica Corbett, staff writer ·

Doctors Without Borders Calls on BioNTech to Share Vaccine Tech With World

"The faster companies share the know-how, the faster we can put an end to this pandemic."

Andrea Germanos, staff writer ·

Over 30,000 US Veterans of Post-9/11 Wars Have Killed Themselves Since 2001

"As we come closer to the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we must reflect on the mental health cost of the Global War on Terror."

Julia Conley, staff writer ·

Sunrise Ends 400-Mile Climate March With Arrests at Ted Cruz's House

The Gulf South marchers demand that Congress and the Biden White House pass bold climate jobs legislation, including a bill to create a Civilian Climate Corps.

Jessica Corbett, staff writer ·

Global Hopes in Doubt After G7 Fails to Meet Climate Finance Pledges for Poor Nations

"I'd have really hoped for a clearer signal on how and when we will be able to see the commitment to mobilize the $100 billion fulfilled."

Andrea Germanos, staff writer ·