Jill Abramson, The Guardian
I just bought my first official souvenir of the Trump era. No, it wasn’t a pink pussycat hat. It’s a black T-shirt with white typography that says “Alternative Facts are Lies”.
The shirt commemorates a piece of Orwellian newspeak that flew from the lips of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. She made the absurd claim that the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, hadn’t lied to reporters about the size of the inaugural crowd, he had merely presented them with “alternative facts”. The salient part of her exchange with host Chuck Todd is worth setting out in full:
Chuck Todd: ... answer the question 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? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office ...
Kellyanne Conway: No it doesn’t.
Chuck Todd: ... on day one.
Kellyanne Conway: Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What ... You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains ...
Chuck Todd: Wait a minute ... alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered, the one thing he got right was Zeke Miller. Four of the five facts he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.
By the time Meet the Press aired, I had actually grown tired of the argument over the size of the crowd at Trump’s swearing-in. It’s the kind of trivial issue that catches fire on social media and in the press, something Trump knows better than anyone. In this case, anyone on the internet could see a comparison of the Obama and Trump in photographs and catch the new president in his lie. Nonetheless, obsessive attention to crowd size dominated several news cycles.
The New York Times was right to call out the White House on obvious falsehoods, but its big headline was part of the reactive news coverage that Trump gamed throughout his campaign. Through a provocative tweet or gross insult, he could ignite a firestorm on social media and in the press. The timing is always interesting because when these storms blew, it was often to obscure a deeper and more serious menace. All the attention paid to the number of people at the inauguration obscured the import of both the executive order on healthcare he signed on Friday and the huge women’s protests on Saturday.
The farrago Trump has created on healthcare is consequential and shameful. Conway happily presented some “alternative facts” about it in the same television appearance, claiming:
He signed executive orders to stop Obamacare and all of its problems. Many people have lost their ... millions of people have lost their insurance, their doctors, their plans. So that stops right now.
He’s going to replace it with something much more free-market and patient-centric in nature.
It’s hard to imagine offering anything more patient-centric than providing more good health insurance. The Affordable Care Act has driven the number of Americans without insurance to an all-time low. Conway’s claim that “millions of people have lost their insurance” comes directly from specious Koch-funded ads during the campaign. It’s a provable fact that far more people gained coverage than had their policies cancelled. And in the latter cases, some individual market plans were discontinued, but policyholders weren’t denied coverage. They were often offered cheaper alternatives, because many qualified for federal subsidies or could buy new policies with better coverage on state and federal marketplaces.
Repealing Obamacare could deny more than 18 million people health coverage, and Republican proposals to replace it are a muddle of insufficiency. Some proposed bills may cover more people but the coverage is skeletal and won’t begin to pay for many procedures. The new secretary of health and human services, Republican Representative Tom Price, has offered a plan in Congress that makes good health care less affordable and less accessible for most people. The health care savings accounts that many Republicans embrace won’t help people who can’t save enough to cover anything approaching catastrophic treatment.
Trump and Conway are playing Three-card Monte with their alternative facts on health; “condemn the policy you don’t like, propose something far worse as a replacement and claim that it is much better”, as the New York Times described their hypocrisy.
The new president doesn’t seem to understand the actual facts. Spicer, who so viciously attacked the press on Saturday, had to hurriedly walk back the comments of his boss when Trump, during an interview with the Washington Post before the inauguration, promised “insurance for everybody”. Spicer’s amendment to his comments dragged Trump back to Republican orthodoxy: access to insurance would be increased and costs cut through marketplace competition, not huge new government spending for universal coverage.
When you’ve spent your career being scrupulous about facts, it’s hard to adjust to life in Trump’s post-truth America. Certainly, the press has made its share of mistakes and had serious flirtations with what Steven Colbert labeled “truthiness” during the Bush years, when news organizations, including the Times, published stories based on false intelligence. There were far too many fake news stories in 2016 from sketchy sites. But I agree with Susan Glasser, the editor of Politico, who recently wrote an important essay for the Brookings Institution called “Covering Politics in a ‘Post-Truth’ America”. She concluded that serious political reporting (not poll prognostications) has never been better. But there is too much of it, and so little of it, even the fine investigations of Trump’s business dealings or past treatment of women, seems to matter to people.
The world, however, does pay attention to the words of the leaders of the last remaining superpower. The “American carnage” that President Trump described doesn’t comport with the American reality. We do not live in a country that is economically shattered and crime-infested. Crime rates are historically low and there has been record job growth over the last eight years. His cry of “America First” evokes Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist and antisemitic poison, not the inclusive and empathetic beliefs shared by most Americans. Globalism and technology have hollowed out some industries and parts of the country, but an interconnected world has benefited more people than it has hurt.
Most people believe there is truth and there are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies.