by Matthew Pertz, Opinion Editor
In a now-legendary interview from the Jan. 22 edition of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd pushed White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway on why Press Secretary Sean Spicer would intentionally lie to the public, even about something as trivial as inauguration crowd size.
“You did not answer the question,” Todd pressed after several minutes of questioning, “of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood? Why did he do that?”
“Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” Conway answered. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And. . .Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
The phrase “alternative facts” belongs in an Orwell novel or a 9/11 truther forum, not in the White House’s official talking points. The phrase is an oxymoron: the alternative to fact is fabrication.
But Conway’s laughable gaffe is merely the symptom of the Trump administration’s signature disease. Steve Bannon, chief strategist to President Trump and Breitbart co-founder, told The New York Times in a phone interview, “I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
Lies delivered from the White House pulpit are an old trope. According to presidential profiler Richard Reeves, President Kennedy convinced a TIME reporter he could read 1,200 words per minute through the power of his personality, despite the fact that his documented reading speed was nearly half that rate. Richard Nixon’s obvious aversion to the press, documented in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s iconic read, “All the President’s Men,” seems obvious given his transgressions and obsession over his own image. Even our youngest former president, Barack Obama, ran one of the most tight-lipped administrations in history, cracking down on whistle-blowers and right-wing news organizations like no administration before.
But Trump has shifted the battle from inflating a story to discrediting the institutions as a whole.
Good journalists report on Democrats and Republicans without an agenda so that readers and voters can decide which party to support. But by labeling the media as an opposition force, Trump has inherently painted himself as a alternative source of facts, leaving the public to decide between professional truth-tellers and our commander in chief. And while there are certainly instances where the media at large has bungled stories, a believable press is still essential to a viable democracy. Trump’s America is no exception.
Not all reporters are blameless. Some journalists have certainly shown bias and favored one candidate over another. CNN has faced criticism from both parties for hiring DNC Chair Donna Brazile and former Trump 2016 Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski, both of whom egregiously violated impartiality to give their respective candidates a boost. Just this past week a TIME reporter falsely wrote that Trump had removed the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office (a claim which was later deleted and corrected).
But as a whole the distrust of honest journalists is all a microcosm of a larger populist move away from intellectualism and facts towards reactionary, visceral judgment. Asking hard questions of any politician is suddenly a partisan position; CNN’s Jake Tapper is cast as a liberal for repeatedly pushing Trump, while Chris Wallace of Fox News is burdened with the conservative stereotype of his network. Neither of those accusations are accurate, and in a society where two of our best TV newsmen are projected as partisan hacks, there’s little hope for a free press.
So while President Trump and his gang of merry media-haters seem intent on distorting information like never before, it’s important to note that we as citizens have the right and the power to overcome this. Believing the mainstream media is the first step. Nearly every nationally respected outlet has an untainted news gathering operation. That means that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel are all reporting the same basic facts, albeit with some editorial bias from big-name hosts. However, the inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have already proven that their dedication to Trump’s popularity knows no bounds, even outright slander and lying. If the presidency shows more indifference to truth, then Americans must show their trust in journalists as an endorsement of facts and reality.