‘Alternative Facts’ and the Costs of Trump-Branded Reality
January 24, 2017, 3:50pm

When Donald J. Trump swore the presidential oath on Friday, he assumed responsibility not only for the levers of government but also for one of the United States’ most valuable assets, battered though it may be: its credibility.

The country’s sentimental reverence for truth and its jealously guarded press freedoms, while never perfect, have been as important to its global standing as the strength of its military and the reliability of its currency. It’s the bedrock of that “American exceptionalism” we’ve heard so much about for so long.

Disinformation was for dictatorships, banana republics and failed states.

Yet there it was on Saturday, emanating from the lectern of the White House briefing room — the official microphone of the United States — as Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, used his first appearance there to put forth easily debunked statistics¹ that questioned the news media’s reporting on the size of the president’s inaugural audience (of all things).

President Trump and his press secretary disputed estimates of attendance at his inauguration, but footage from Friday’s event, compared with those from President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, showed a different story.

By THE NEW YORK TIMES on  January 22, 2017. Photo by Left, Lucas Jackson, Right, Stelios Varias/Reuters. Watch in Times Video »

Mr. Spicer was picking up on the message from his boss, who made false claims² about news coverage earlier that day as he declared a “running war” with the news media during a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency, whose most solemn duty is to feed vital and true information to presidents as they run actual wars.

It was chilling when Mr. Trump’s assertion that reporters were “among the most dishonest people on earth” became an applause line for the crowd gathered to hear him speak in front of the memorial to fallen agents at C.I.A. headquarters.

Still more chilling was when the White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared on “Meet the Press” on Sunday to assert that Mr. Spicer’s falsehoods were simply “alternative facts.”

Ms. Conway made no bones about what she thought of the news media’s ability to debunk those “alternative facts” in a way Americans — especially Trump-loving Americans — would believe.

“You want to talk provable facts?” she said to the moderator, Chuck Todd. “Look — you’ve got a 14 percent approval rating in the media, that you’ve earned. You want to push back on us?” (She appeared to be referring to a Gallup poll figure related to Republicans’ views.)

And really, there it was: an apparent animating principle of Mr. Trump’s news media strategy since he first began campaigning. That strategy has consistently presumed that low public opinion of mainstream journalism (which Mr. Trump has been only too happy to help stoke) creates an opening to sell the Trump version of reality, no matter its adherence to the facts.

As Mr. Trump and his supporters regularly note, whatever he did during the campaign, it was successful: He won. His most ardent supporters loved the news media bashing. And the complaints and aggressive fact-checking by the news media played right into his hands. He portrayed it as just so much whining and opposition from yet another overprivileged constituency of the Washington establishment.

But will tactics that worked in the campaign work in the White House? History is littered with examples of new administrations that quickly found that the techniques that served them well in campaigns did not work well in government.

And if they do work, what are the long-term costs to government credibility from tactical “wins” that are achieved through the aggressive use of falsehoods? Whatever they are, Mr. Trump should realize that it could hurt his agenda more than anything else.

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, leaving a briefing on Saturday. He used his first appearance to put forth easily debunked facts. Doug Mills/The New York Times 

There’s a reason George W. Bush’s adviser Karen Hughes told the newly promoted Bush press secretary, Scott McClellan, in 2003, “Your most important job, in my view, will be to make sure the president maintains his credibility with the American people.”

“‘It’s one of his greatest strengths,”’ Mr. McClellan quoted Ms. Hughes as saying in his autobiography, “What Happened.’’

Mr. McClellan’s book chronicles how Mr. Bush staked that credibility on the false rationale for the Iraq invasion — that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — and ultimately lost the confidence of Americans, hobbling him for the rest of his presidency.

But the damage wasn’t isolated to Mr. Bush’s political standing. To this day, the American intelligence community must contend with lingering questions about its own credibility — to wit, taunts from Moscow (not to mention from Mr. Trump) that assessments pointing to Russian meddling in the presidential election are questionable. After all, wasn’t it wrong about Iraq?

There’s a big difference in importance between the size of Mr. Trump’s inaugural audience and the intelligence that led to war, no question. And, as the former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer noted in a conversation with me on Sunday, it’s way too early to say whether Mr. Spicer’s weekend performance will be the norm.

The Trump team’s emotions were raw over the weekend, Mr. Fleischer noted, after a mistaken pool report was sent to the rest of the White House press corps, claiming that Mr. Trump had removed a bust of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. Zeke Miller, the Time magazine journalist who had written the report, quickly corrected it and apologized when the White House alerted him to the error.

“It rightly leaves the people inside feeling that ‘reporters were opposed to us all along for being racist and the first thing they did was imply we were,’” Mr. Fleischer said.

Still, the weekend’s events did not arrive in a vacuum. There was the report last week in The Washington Post that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, known for high standards of accuracy, was selling a commemorative book about Mr. Trump riddled with questionable notions, such as that Hillary Clinton deserved more blame than Mr. Trump did for the so-called birther campaign questioning Mr. Obama’s citizenship. (After that report, the museum said it was removing the book pending an investigation into whether it met standards for accuracy.)

The administration’s decision to eradicate nearly any reference to “climate change” on the White House website could be expected given Mr. Trump’s promises to overturn his predecessors’ climate policies. But it set off concerns among climate scientists that it would extend to valuable government data — fears that also apply to the sanctity of other administration-controlled data. (Mr. Fleischer, for one, noted that career bureaucrats would blow the whistle on any moves to manipulate government data.)

Then there is the central information center of any White House: the pressroom.

On Thursday, Jim Hoft, the founder of The Gateway Pundit, said the White House was giving his site an official press credential. The Gateway Pundit promoted hoaxes such as one alleging that protesters in Austin, Tex., were bused in by the liberal donor George Soros. (The originator of that story told The New York Times that his assertions were not supported by fact.)

The White House has not confirmed that it will credential Gateway Pundit, but Mr. Hoft’s announcement stoked anxiety among traditional reporters that the new administration will pack the pressroom with sympathetic organizations willing to promote falsehoods — or, perhaps, “alternative facts.” It’s one thing if that creates a false feedback loop about the size of an inauguration crowd — and quite another if it does so about a more important national security matter, as the CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, said over the weekend.

Mr. McClellan, the Bush press secretary, warned in an interview with me on Sunday that Mr. Spicer might come to regret it if reporters started to doubt the veracity of what he told them.

“There will be tough times ahead — there are for every White House — and that’s when that credibility and trust is most important,” Mr. McClellan said. But more important, he said, when you’re at the White House lectern, “you’re speaking for the free world to some extent, and what ideals are you holding up for that free world?”

There’s nothing exceptional about the ones that aren’t true.

Comments