"You're saying it's a falsehood. And they're giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts." — Kellyanne Conway, adviser to President Donald Trump, on NBC's Meet the Press.
"Alternative facts" may sound like something cooked up between George Orwell and Stephen Colbert, but President Donald Trump's administration doubled down on them during his first few days in office. Conway coined the term "alternative facts" on Meet the Press the day after presidential press secretary Sean Spicer held a belligerent press conference during which he insisted "the media" miscounted and downplayed the number of people at Trump's inauguration the day before.
Spicer, Conway and Trump are entitled to their belief that the inauguration was the most beautiful in history, or the most historic, or any other superlative they might imagine. They are not, however, entitled to their own "facts" — which were contradicted by several objective criteria, including photographs of the National Mall, satellite images and ridership numbers from Washington D.C. public transit.
Nevertheless, "alternative facts" continued all last week from Spicer, who said Jan. 24 that the new president received more electoral votes than any Republican since Ronald Reagan. Fact: George H.W. Bush received 426 electoral votes in 1988; Trump won 306.
All this raises two questions: Why are we squabbling over such small, ego-driven matters in the face of our country's challenges? And if the new White House spokesman came out of the gate with "facts" so easily disproved, can he (and his bosses) be trusted to tell the truth about weightier matters? As veteran journalist Jay Rosen wrote later, the message from the White House was: "We are not bound by what you call facts. We have our own, and we will proceed to put them out regardless of what the evidence says. It's not a problem for us if you stagger from the room in disbelief."
More than a few people compared Conway's "alternative facts" coinage to the "newspeak" outlined by George Orwell in his brilliant dystopian novel 1984. (Within three days of Conway's statement, the 68-year-old book rose to No. 1 on the bestseller list on Amazon.com.)
Any assertions to the contrary aren't 'alternative facts' — they're falsehoods.
Despite what the White House intimated, facts are nonpartisan. Here are several: Fewer people attended the inauguration than the Women's March on Washington a day later. Republicans hold majorities in both houses of Congress. The Louisiana coast is eroding. New Orleans flooded in 2005 because of breaches in the federal levees, not as a direct result of Hurricane Katrina. Shootings in New Orleans were way up in 2016 over the year before. Any assertions to the contrary aren't "alternative facts" — they're falsehoods.
Journalists have a responsibility to report facts objectively. Citizens likewise have a responsibility to seek out and digest proven facts — even when they undermine or contradict their strongly held beliefs and/or biases. If the messages coming out of the White House in the early days of the Trump administration are any indication, journalists and citizens in the next four years will have to work extra hard to discern the truth and call out "alternative facts" for what they are — falsehoods.