Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway created a controversy on Sunday when she tried to address the disastrous press conference held by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday. Spicer offered a bizarre, patently false claim about the size of the inauguration crowd. He claimed the number of people who gathered to watch the swearing-in of the president-who-would-be king was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration” in the history of the world. Defending Spicer’s humiliating debut, Conway told Meet the Press host Chuck Todd that Spicer was simply using “alternative facts” in his claim about the inauguration.
Conway’s remark has set off a firestorm, as the new “alternative facts” conversation has pushed “fake news” out of the limelight, at least temporarily. But alternative facts are nothing new for conservatives — they’ve been using them for years.
Let’s start by getting the distinction between “fake news” and “alternative facts” out of the way. “Fake news” is generally used to describe stories that are mostly or completely made up out of whole cloth. The events and quotes in fake news stories very often never happened. “Alternative facts” are different. Although the term appears to have been invented by Conway on the spur of the moment, the idea has been around for a while: take something that looks or sounds like one thing, then tell viewers or listeners it’s actually something else.
Alternate facts were on full display in the Reagan years when The Gipper insisted that the U.S. had not traded arms for hostages during the Iran-Contra affair. But eventually, confronted with reality, Reagan was forced to grudgingly admit that yes, we had done exactly that.
During the Bush administration alternate facts ran rampant in Washington. Remember what an unidentified White House staffer, believed to be Karl Rove, told journalist Ron Suskind? The staffer said that journalists were part of the “reality-based community.” He then went on to say,
That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.
Volumes of alternate facts were created around the Iraq War. In addition to the false claims about weapons of mass destruction, there was the complete lie that Saddam Hussein had refused to allow U.N. weapons inspectors into the country. They were there, they were doing their job, and they only left when Bush ordered everyone out of Iraq in advance of the U.S. invasion. Bush and his advisers created a new narrative that we had no choice but war because Saddam wasn’t cooperating with the U.N.
Right-wing media use “alternative facts” on an almost daily basis. Take Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, who has made selectively editing videos to change their meaning into a form of low art. Or David Daleiden, whose edited Planned Parenthood videos ushered in new GOP attacks on the organization.
Conservative blogs are a big source of “alternative facts.” It’s a given to many liberals that conservatives lie. But a close examination of conservative blogs and other outlets reveals it’s not so much that they outright lie as it is that they often simply don’t bother to give their readers or viewers all of the pertinent information.
Consider this headline from The Daily Caller: “Obama Had A Lower Average Approval Rating Than NIXON.” It’s true, as far as it goes. But what they don’t tell you is that Obama’s rating fluctuated, like that of most recent presidents, during his term, and he ended with a rating almost as high as the one with which he began. That says that, looking back on his time in office, most Americans approved of what he had accomplished. Nixon’s rating, on the other hand, held fairly steady during his first term, then plummeted after Watergate, and never recovered before he resigned in disgrace.
The Trump administration is perfecting the long-standing practice of playing fast and loose with the truth by going in a bold direction. Trump’s minions don’t seem to be concerned about offering even a grain of truth to work from — they take an event or situation and simply lie about it. And they do so for what appears to be the most juvenile of reasons; so they can paint an alternate version of reality that is more flattering to their boss.
Kellyanne Conway may have invented the term “alternative facts,” but the conservative practice of not being totally truthful has been around for quite some time. And if the first few days of the Trump administration are any signal, the fact-checkers (or “alternative fact” checkers) are going to have a busy four years ahead of them.