One of life’s great lessons is that there’s always two sides to every story. That perspective matters; your truth might not be the same as somebody else’s. However, it’s also important to note that empirical evidence is real, that, sometimes, right and wrong does come in absolutes. That facts are facts, and “alternative facts” are lies.
If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that from the get-go, Donald Trump’s administration made it clear that they would not adhere to traditional, or even mildly respectable, conventions when it comes to truth-telling. The better part of the first week of Trump’s presidency was spent disputing photographic evidence that showed a large discrepancy in the crowd sizes at the 44th and 45th Presidential Inaugurations.
That was just the beginning. Trump continued to harp on what he claimed to be the media’s dishonest reporting on his inauguration turn-out, even after non-partisan crowd scientists continually confirmed what pretty much anybody with eyes could deduce on their own. He also held on for dear life to a completely unsubstantiated assertion that he won the popular vote if you “deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Reminder: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes. There is yet to be a shred of evidence supporting Trump’s accusations of voter fraud. The early willingness of Trump and his cohorts to create their own truth is a sign that Trump has already built a powerful propaganda machine. And he will continue to use it to manipulate and distract whenever possible.
Last week, an article co-written by journalists Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman about the turbulent beginning of Trump’s presidency ran in the New York Times, profiling him as inexperienced, without the intellectual curiosity or know-how to properly adjust to his new and unfamiliar role as leader of the free world.
Amongst the in-depth description of the ways in which the president and his staff have fumbled their duties, the piece also painted a grim picture of the president: presenting him as an impatient and uniformed man who spends his nights toiling away on Twitter, wandering the White House attempting to get the lay of his new home, and “watching television in his bathrobe.” For some reason, this snapshot in particular stuck out to the president and his minions. They didn’t like the image, and they wanted it wiped from the record.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded by attacking the integrity of the story, and, as it were, The New York Times. Spicer said, “That story was so riddled with inaccuracies and lies,” he continued, livid. “There were just blatant factual errors, and it’s unacceptable to see that kind of reporting, or so-called reporting. That is literally the epitome of fake news.”
Spicer went on to zero in on the bathrobe detail, insisting that he didn’t even believe that the president owned a bathrobe, and that “he definitely doesn’t wear one.” Well, the internet was locked and loaded to respond to that. Frist of all, the White House staff provide bathrobes for the residence, so it’s not outlandish to imagine that Trump might wear one. And, although perhaps it’s unknowable whether or not he does so on a nightly basis, Twitter users were quick to flood the platform with images of The Donald donning bathrobes left and right.
And speaking of Twitter, Trump levied his very own response, tweeting “The failing @nytimes writes total fiction concerning me. They have gotten it wrong for two years, and now are making up stories & sources!” He also used the social media machine to respond to criticisms of his controversial travel ban, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.”
Rather than letting such inflammatory comments go unchecked, it’s important to unpack the misattributions that both Trump and Spicer have made regarding the legitimacy of media reports. Fake news is a relatively new phenomenon in the American landscape, and it’s true that its effects can be extremely negative. During the election, a completely fabricated story about a Hillary Clinton-backed, child sex-trafficking ring led a man to enter a pizzeria in Washington D.C. with an assault rifle, in an attempt to break-up the nonexistent illegal operation.
However, there is an important distinction to be made between minor reporting errors and a made-up story with an agenda. For a moment, let’s entertain the accusations of Sean Spicer, referring to the specific case of the bathrobe. What if he were correct in asserting that Trump doesn’t wear a bathrobe? This still would not qualify the article, or the media company, as fake news.
There is a fundamental difference between receiving an anecdotal piece of information from a source that turns out to be exaggerated (potentially the bathrobe), and weaving an elaborate fiction with political malice or specific intent driving the narrative.
Unfortunately, sometimes inaccuracies or mistakes find their way into well-researched and corroborated articles. For this reason, The New York Times (like almost any reputable news source) periodically prints corrections to articles that do not meet their rigorous standards. They might mistakenly misspell a name, or report that a source is from Philadelphia when in fact they’re from Pittsburgh. These are not predetermined plants with an ulterior motive; they are human error, which is at times inevitable.
At the risk of infantilizing Trump supporters, I’d like to make an analogy; Donald Trump creates his own realities at whim, and his supporters are like children who look up to their father with great reverence. They believe that Santa Claus is real when their daddy says so. Why would he lie to them? He’s the ultimate authority. And, in Donald Trump’s case, he’s the fucking president.
For the President of the United States to plant the seeds of conspiracy in the minds of his constituency, by declaring that any poll or news story that paints him negatively is simply fake news, is utterly terrifying. It’s a familiar and effective tactic used to isolate the information that people trust, and in doing so foster unyielding support and loyalty. Hitler did the same thing, and we all know how that ended.
Of course, it seems incomprehensible that America could devolve into a violent authoritarian government. But, unless we continue to fact check every single statement that comes out of the White House, we’re at risk for the unthinkable happening. As simple as it seems, our greatest defense is the truth.