Sunday, January 22, 2017

Journalism in the Era of the Alt-Facts Administration [UPDATE BELOW]

It's entirely expected that the newly-sworn-in protofascist regime in the capitol is likely to have significant problems adjusting to holding power within a liberal democracy wherein it can't entirely control the press, the internet, the other branches of government--the other power-centers that are theoretically there to keep such a regime in check. The corporate press is going to have some problems adjusting as well.

After aerial photos of Donald Trump's Friday inauguration suggested a smaller audience for the event compared to those of the past, Trump dispatched his minions to wage war on this notion. On Saturday, Sean Spicer used his first official appearance as White House Press Secretary to offer up a demagogic tirade against the press, calling it dishonest, saying it was "sewing division" and in particular raging against any reporting that the inauguration was anything less than heavily attended. "No one. Had. Numbers," he huffed, "Because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out." Embarrassingly, an anti-Trump march on the capitol Saturday appeared to draw several times the crowd as the inauguration; Spicer was on that case too, adding, "By the way, this [the lack of any numbers] applies to any attempts to try to count the number of protesters today in the same fashion." Get it folks? No numbers! And then, only moments later, No Numbers Spicer boldly asserted that

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe."

After ranting and raving for a little over five minutes, Spicer then stomped out of the room without taking a single question from the assembled reporters. Ladies and gentlemen, your new White House Press Secretary!

Politifact tackled Spicer's claims on this subject and found nearly every one either entirely false or grossly misleading--rating: Pants On Fire.

For NBC's Chuck Todd, this crowd-size thing was completely ridiculous, Spicer's fiction appearing to have been advanced for no real reason at all. Mainstream press commentators like Todd still haven't quite figured out that whole protofascist thing. They never figured it out during the campaign either, and their failure was, in fact, a not-insignificant factor in how this regime was inflicted upon the U.S. Fortunately, Chuck had Kellyanne Conway, the Counselor to the new President, to explain it to him. The two engaged in a rather comical rhetorical dance on Meet the Press Sunday morning.

"The presidency is about choices," said Todd, "so I'm curious why President Trump chose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd-size. I guess my question to you is, why do that?"

Conway tried to deflect on to other issues, went into a long, irrelevant commentary that tried to make Trump's performance in the election sound like some sort of major popular win--I'll come back to that in a moment--then said of reports of the relatively small size of the inaugural crowd, "I think it is, I think it is a symbol for the unfair and incomplete treatment that this president often receives." She went on about how the Nielsen ratings showed that more people watched Trump's inauguration on television than watched Obama's 2013 inauguration.[1]

Todd persisted; Conway's response was to threaten to cut off access to the White House for those questioning the administration:

"If [you're] going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms, I think that we're going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great, open relationship with our press."

Dynamite. Todd continued to seek an answer to his question and Conway gave him another headline item:

"You're saying it's a falsehood and they're giving-- Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that."

That phrase "alternative facts" is likely to get a lot of play in the press.[2] Todd, to to his credit, clearly couldn't believe his ears. "Alternative facts are not facts," he noted. "They're falsehoods."

The correct word, of course, is "lies" but applying the "L" word to even the most blatant lies by the president--any president--is a longstanding taboo in the press. The Cult of Objectivity likes to pretend that deploying that particular characterization is some sort of breach of professional ethics, an inappropriate editorial judgment.[3] It's going to be interesting, then, to see how those in the press are going to cover a president who utters massive lies as a matter of daily routine.[4] On this point, Todd at least seems to be heading in the right direction; while he still refuses to call a lie by its proper name, his formulation--a "provable falsehood"--is as strongly worded as anything we ever get from any of his mainstream colleagues and he didn't back down from it, even when threatened.

What Todd doesn't seem to understand is that to this administration--and to its fans--things like the size of the inauguration crowd aren't at all inconsequential. While trying to dodge Chuck Todd's questions, Kellyanne Conway offered this:

"On this matter of crowd size, I mean, for me, I think the most quantifiable points of interest for Americans should be what just happened a few months ago that brought him [Trump] here, the 31 of 50 states he won, the 2600 counties, the 200 counties that went for President Obama that now went to President Trump and the fact that 29, 30 million women voted for Donald Trump for president, they should be respected, somebody should cover their voices as well."

Some "quantifiable points" Conway neglected in her irrelevant spiel: Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million, with 58% of women voting against him. Trump had an explanation for the former back in November:

Though the idea of widespread "voter fraud" is one of those "alternative facts" persistently peddled by the right-wing Rage Machine as rationale for Republican voter suppression efforts, it's a fiction, one that has been debunked by every serious examination of the question. Every scrap of reliable information says this kind of in-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent and the idea that it's not only real but extends to millions of people falls into the same category as Trump's claims about "thousands and thousands" of American Muslims celebrating in the streets of New Jersey when the 9/11 attacks occurred. These were lies that, like so many that emanate from Trump, aim at demonizing powerless minorities (Trump identified those he claimed were voting illegally as illegal immigrants). Trump's politics are protofascist in nature--basically fascism minus the more extreme commitment to violence--and the corporate press is simply going to have to accept this and understand the implications of it. One of those implications is that Trump must, at all times, project an image of a strong and beloved leader, standing up for the people while besieged by an evil Establishment. He can't bear to let stand the fact that he lost the vote or, in the current dust-up, even a hint of anything that can be interpreted as mockery of his small, er, crowd size.

What lurks behind Conway's alt-"facts" is the extraordinary social damage wrought--and nascent fascist movement birthed--by the right-wing Rage Machine. For better or worse, the U.S. is a fundamentally liberal nation. There's simply no significant popular support for conservative policies. To maintain power in the face of this, the American conservative elite have aggressively labored, through their massive media apparatus, to reduce "politics" and the larger social discourse to the level of a simple good-vs.-evil tale, encouraging their followers to side with them not because their policies are more sound or they have any sort of better argument--any serious examination of such things is, in fact, discouraged--but because they've conjured a pleasing narrative in which they've positioned themselves as the virtuous heroes and everyone else as the evil villains. Nearly every major rightist outlet in the United States has spent a few decades making open war on both reason and on reality itself. Because objective facts would equal an agreed-upon yardstick against which claims can be assessed--and because conservative and reactionary claims can't withstand that scrutiny--breaking down confidence in them has been a major project of the Rage Machine, which attempts to indoctrinate its followers in the belief that the truth or falsity of any proposition can be judged entirely by its temporary political utility. "Facts," via this conditioning, become things that can be used as propaganda on the rare occasions when they serve the cause and can be otherwise discarded. The Machine tells its followers they're persecuted, feeds them a steady diet of manufactured outrages and utterly dehumanizes and demonizes liberals, minorities and anyone else who may stand against the hero of the tale. Liberals, in this fantasy, aren't those who may have a legitimate disagreement. They're an evil, lying, cheating, stealing, weak, moronic enemy actively seeking to do you harm, that have control of the levers of power by illegitimate means and that need to be defeated, destroyed, eliminated. When all reason, all serious thinking, all confidence in institutions has been burned away, all that's left are a bunch of fearful, rage-filled reactionaries who have been taught that though they're right, they're good and they represent The People, they're persecuted by this foe, whom they've been taught to despise. The American conservative elite hope those reared in this atmosphere will show up on election day and vote Republican, which is exactly what has, for some years, happened, but this smog has now given rise to something they didn't anticipate and can't control: a Trumpenstein monster, an angry, ambulatory representation of every bad impulse the Rage Machine has ever projected, with the fascist's promise of national renewal by means of the authoritarian dismantling of the liberal society.[5] Trump's hardcore supporters were reared in this environment and it's to them all this fuss over things like crowd-size is directed. For this particular group, there are no facts anymore, just a narrative to which they've been conditioned to respond. Those alt-"facts" are there to feed that narrative and, perhaps more importantly, to try to widen the range of those infected by it.

Something that perhaps shouldn't need to be so overtly stated is that governance isn't a game to be played between an authoritarian reality-show star and his admiring viewers. There are real people, both in the U.S. and abroad, who can be hurt by Trump and that will be hurt if he governs as he says, real civil liberties that can be crushed and that will be crushed if he has his way. The government of the most powerful nation in the history of the world is now in the hands of a protofascist Twitter troll. That's a problem. The "evil Establishment" Trump stands against isn't the actual political Establishment; it's the institutions of liberal democracy and ultimately, liberal democracy itself. In this particular matter of news media, the press is, at least in theory, a check on Trump and Trump's goal is to completely destroy public confidence in it as an institution--to get rid of that watchdog. He has the presidency and he can do an incredible amount of damage.

His administration presents journalists with something many of them may initially perceive as a crisis. In reality, it's an opportunity, a chance for the press to clean its own house, a chance to shine. While that idea that there are no facts, only narratives, seems self-evidently stupid and dangerous, it's also exactly how most of the corporate press covers political issues. He said/she said "journalism," reporting competing claims as if they were equal while making no effort to adjudicate which, if either, is true. Mainstream commentators may be horrified by that characterization of lies as "alternative facts" but they've implicitly incorporated that same notion into their own work for decades. That needs to stop. Lazy equivalence only ever privileges the lie and in this age of Trump, that's something journalism--and America itself--can no longer afford. And speaking of that, reporters and commentators need to stop trying to come up with some creative way to call a lie something other than a lie. Talk straight. Grow the fuck up. Become that watchdog you're supposed to be, instead of the lapdog you usually are. Since everything in the corporate press seems to come down to profits and demographics, the good news is that Trump is widely despised. He just entered office with the lowest approval rating of any new president on record and that means there's an audience for serious journalism that challenges this administration, something the press should offer with every administration anyway. That can, of course, have a negative effect as well. In the Confirmation Bias Nation, reporting that is false and inaccurate but that plays to public anxiety about Trump can also draw a big crowd. That kind of irresponsible work would only feed Trump's own narrative though, and help further undermine the institution. These are the paths open to journalism now. Shape up, serve your country and maybe this becomes your finest hour or continue down the road of prevarication and/or click-bait-chasing and be rendered even more irrelevant.



[1] This is entirely dishonest--second-term inaugurations from established administrations are always more sparsely watched than first-term ones. According to Nielsen, Trump's inauguration drew 30.6 million viewers, which puts him well behind Obama's 37.7 million viewers in 2009, Reagan's 41.8 million in 1980 and Jimmy Carter's 34.1 million in 1977. He was even behind Richard Nixon's second inaugural, which drew 33 million in 1972. The good news for Trump is that he did at least manage to barely squeak by both Bill Clinton in 1993 (29.7 million) and George Bush Sr. in 1989 (29 million) but if one adjusted for the population growth in the U.S. over those years, he would be well behind them as well, and probably the lowest on record. 

[2] Or maybe not. It's a silver platter item but if those in the corporate press ignore it, it wouldn't be the first time when it comes to dealing with Trump. Or even the 10,000th.

[3] Earlier just this month, Janine Jackson of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting wrote about this.

[4] On Saturday, for example, Trump made a rambling speech to CIA employees in which he asserted that reports about tension between himself and the U.S. intelligence community were a fabrication of an out-to-get-him press. "I have a running war with the media," he declared. "They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth. Right? And they sort of made it sound like I have this feud with the intelligence community." In the real world, Trump, only days earlier, had compared that same intel community to Nazi Germany.

[5] Trump's emergence caused a split inside the Rage Machine, with some embracing him as a virtual messiah while others were horrified. It's been particularly amusing to watch the latter. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg just couldn't believe Republicans would embrace a Trump--the Jonah Goldberg who once wrote an entire book on the premise that fascists were "liberals." Glenn Beck, who sat on television for years preaching anti-rational conspiracism, displaying his infamous board on which he labored to visually connect President Obama and any prominent liberal to dictators, evil Jewish plotters, communists, etc., was aghast at Trump's rise. Unlike most prominent anti-Trump rightists, Beck correctly recognized his own responsibility for this development and was even apologetic about it.

UPDATE (24 Jan, 2017) - From the New York Times:

"President Trump used his first official meeting with congressional leaders on Monday to falsely claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants had robbed him of a popular vote majority, a return to his obsession with the election’s results even as he seeks support for his legislative agenda."

The Times' headline for this story: "Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers." Progress, fellahs, progress.

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