The campaign is over and Donald J. Trump is still fighting. He may have defeated Hillary Clinton, but he is still waging a war against the press — and, more dangerously, against the truth.
“I have a running war with the media,” Trump bragged to CIA employees in an address at Langley on Saturday. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth, right?”
Trump’s most bizarre and egregious claim of the speech – and of the weekend – was that the media lied about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Trump’s crowd did not even reach the broadcast press tent at 12th Street, let alone the Washington Monument a few blocks farther. The press had a good look.
Credible reports show, without a doubt, that Obama’s 2009 crowd was significantly bigger than Trump’s Friday crowd.
2 photos, 45 minutes before Trump 2017 & Obama 2009 inaugurations pic.twitter.com/fZMNYnayDy
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) January 22, 2017
Nevertheless, Trump deployed his top surrogates to defend these claims. White House communications director and press secretary Sean Spicer gave an impromptu speech from the press briefing room deriding the press for lying about crowd size.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period!” Spicer falsely said to the White House press pool. Estimated crowd sizes, photographs, and Nielsen television ratings clearly disprove Spicer’s claim.
“This is called a statement you’re told to make by the President,” tweeted former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “And you know the President is watching.”
— Jay Carney (@JayCarney) January 22, 2017
“Size matters,” PolitiFact added, rating Spicer’s comments with the “Pants on Fire” label reserved for phenomenally incorrect statements.
But, the kicker came on Sunday morning when Trump senior counselor Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press.” Conway told Todd that Spicer had used “alternative facts,” to which Todd fired back: “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.”
Todd is right. Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods. Any rational person, let alone a high-ranking government official, should have the deftness to distinguish true from outlandishly false.
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) January 22, 2017
Todd, in his initial questioning, reminds us of the press secretary’s role: “[Spicer] also serves as the spokesperson for all of America at times. He speaks for all of the country at times. Why put him out there, for the very first time on that podium, to utter a provable falsehood?”
Republican attacks on the press are nothing new. White House press secretaries calling out unfavorable stories or reporters is anything but novel. What Spicer did at the podium on Saturday is something altogether different.
“There are people that understand that if you create a different understanding of reality, you can actually change politics or anything else you want to deal with,” said Michael Oreskes, head of news at NPR, on CNN’s Reliable Sources Sunday morning. “But the problem with that is when society needs to make real decisions about real issues – about life and death, about war and peace, about climate, about economy – you have to deal with the actual reality.”
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 22, 2017
The crowd size at an inauguration is a petty statistic in the grand scheme of American government and politics. But, we must ask, what will happen when the crowd is located far from the familiarity of the National Mall and the control of the Secret Service? What will happen when the crowd is out of view of the American press?
What will happen when the crowd is an important economic statistic that could offset the global markets?
What will happen when the crowd is a key diplomatic indicator with our key alliances at stake?
What will happen when the crowd is a group of soldiers on a battlefield in a distant land, where life and death is the difference between one number and a different number? Or even one decimal point and another?
When will the differentiation between facts and so-called “alternative facts” matter to the Trump White House? Do we have to fill Arlington Cemetery with our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters before the truth starts to matter?
The public is expected to distill truth from the world, and make real-life decisions based upon their perceived realities – the pictures in their heads, as Walter Lippmann once put it. The size of the crowd may not matter now, but it will matter later.
Press secretaries always mold the truth into their own version of the truth. That is why we have political reporters in briefing rooms – to translate and contextualize propaganda for the American public. But, when the White House press secretary says “2 + 2 = 5,” we should not forget our reading of George Orwell. The sky is still blue. Our eyes are not deceiving us. The crowd was, in fact, significantly smaller.
Orwell: Political language "is designed to make lies sound truthful & murder respectable & to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
— Michiko Kakutani (@michikokakutani) January 22, 2017
The press is tough. We are thick-skinned. We are used to criticism. In fact, good journalists thrive upon criticism. And we will do our jobs whether the White House press secretary says the sky is blue, navy blue, or even red.
Disparage the press if you must, Sean Spicer. But, don’t disparage the truth. To disparage the truth is to disparage the American people.
To disparage the truth is to endanger the American people.