Alternative Facts, the Artefacts of a New Game

Posted on January 30, 2017

Jan van Eijck

Dutch alternative facts cartoon from the national newspaper NRC. Caption: Fokke and Sukke Have Had Enough of All Those Lies. Fokke: “Ice better than ever.” Sukke: “Period.”

Alternative facts do not exist. There are statements of fact, that is statements that are based on reality, erroneous statements, that is, statements that are out of touch with reality uttered in ignorance, and lies, that is, statements that pretend to be based on reality but in fact are not. What the Trump gouvernment calls alternative facts (Kellyanne Conway on NBC’s Meet the Press), are what honest people call lies. Honest people, by the way, are people who make it a point to try to maintain the link with reality when they communicate with others. Lies are false statements uttered with the intent to deceive. False statements are statements that do not agree with reality. Truth is agreement with reality. Truth, in a larger sense, is love of what is real. Truth, ultimately, is the sincere wish to be in tune with the universe and with the core of one’s own inner being.

The Meet The Press interview of Kellyanne Conway by Chuck Todd, where Conway mints the neologism alternative fact, is mind-blowing. Please watch it if you have not done so already. And please study the transcript. The transcript is important, for it reveals to us the new game that is being played here, a new game that the mainstream serious news media still fail to understand.

Chuck Todd: “Why did the president send out his press secretary, who’s not just the spokesperson for Donald Trump. He could be– He also serves as the spokesperson for all of America at times. He speaks for all of the country at times. Why put him out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood? It’s a small thing. But the first time he confronts the public it’s a falsehood?”

Kellyanne Conway: “Chuck, I mean, if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great open relationship with our press.”

(Fast forward through some minutes where Todd struggles to ask his question again and again, and where Conway just cannot see the point of it.)

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: “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.”

Chuck Todd ends the interview “befuddled”. This befuddlement (is this a word?) is no doubt shared by many viewers. But not by all, no way by all.

The worrying thing is that Kellyanne is going to make it great with the press, and that she knows full well that she is. Maybe Todd and her are not going to have a great relationship, but why should she care? What we see here is that Conway is determined to play a new game, a game with new rules, and a game she is aware she can play way, way, conway better than her adversaries.

At the end of the interview, we see Todd get so irritated that he calls Spicer and his statement ridiculous. Kellyanne Conway immediately hits back: “Respectfully, your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president.” And then she clearly admits it is a battle tactic: “I’ll answer it this way. Think about what you just said to your viewers. That’s why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.”

This is vicious, of course, but it also is brilliant. It is vicious because Conway knows she irritates Todd no end, and that his irritation has made him slip into calling the White House press secretary ridiculous. It is brilliant because she immediately uses ridiculous against him, and she knows many viewers will think that Todd is lacking in respect to their president, to their press secretary. Chuck Todd ends the interview: “It’s a political tactic to come up with alternative facts and try to set up the press as your enemy?”

Well, he hasn’t understood. He hasn’t understood that many viewers love the way Conway handled him, they lap it up. Kellyanne Conway is going to make it great as their new heroin, as one who can bring spice into the otherwise dull and up until now dreary meetings with the press. From now on, for the foreseeable future, White House press conferences are going to be episodes of one great entertainment show, with Kellyanne Conway as one of the main stars. And she knows it, and she delights in it because she knows she is good at it. And the serious press still does not understand it.

I also expect we will hear and see a lot of White House director of strategic communications Hope Hicks. Indeed, I predict that a very large part of the American public will soon get addicted to a new brand of reality show. They will soon be enjoying every single bit of it, in a way they have never enjoyed state briefings before. The funniest parts are going to be the utterly helpless attempts of the serious reporters, wasting their time and efforts to get any sense out of the White House. “Did you see how mad Hicks was getting him?” “Did you notice how well Conway played her?” Surely, Donald Trump picked the right crew of expert entertainers for his new show. After all, entertainment has always been his core business. He is far better at it than the competition, and he knows it. Watch them all get beside themselves with rage. Hilarious!

The New York Times calls Conway The Mistress of Misdirection, and then lashes out at Trump:

Donald Trump is a proven liar. He lies often and effortlessly. He lies about the profound and the trivial. He lies to avoid guilt and invite glory. He lies when his pride is injured and when his pomposity is challenged.

Indeed, one of the greatest threats Trump poses is that he corrupts and corrodes the absoluteness of truth, facts and science.

It is no coincidence that the rise of Trump is concurrent with the rise of “fake news.” It is no coincidence that his rise comes during an age of severely damaged faith in institutions.

(Charles M. Blow in The New York Times, Jan 26, 2017)

Blow ends his opinion piece with:

We all have to adjust to this unprecedented assault on the truth and stand ready to vigilantly defend against it, because without truth, what’s left? Our president is a pathological liar. Say it. Write it. Never become inured to it. And dispense with the terms of art to describe it. A lie by any other name portends the same.

Yes, all true and agreed, but this misses many important points. CNN, NBC, the NYT, all of them, they still do not understand the new game that is being played. They still struggle and pain because the old rules do not apply anymore. They sense they have lost their footing, but they cannot understand how and why this could happen.

Well, here is the new reality. Every single time they lash out at Trump, at Spicer, at Conway, they make them bigger. The angrier the confrontations with the serious press are going to get – and my prediction is that they are going to get a lot angrier – the more the serious press is going to be dragged down, and the less serious a large part of the audience will take them. And they can do nothing about it.

From now on, it is all entertainment, and whoever plays ball, by getting angry, by getting serious, by insisting on serious answers to serious questions, is letting himself be dragged into this new game, this new show where nothing is serious, and where all seriousness can easily be made to look ridiculous.

There is only one thing that could stop this new show, and that is something that I fear is not going to happen. What would stop this show is the serious press getting together, coming to their senses, and realizing that they are being played. If they realize this, they could simply stop going there. This suggestion was made, in Dutch in an opinion piece in a Dutch newspaper, by Jan Kuitenbrouwer, but it is worth to be said in English, so I am repeating it here.

The associated serious press could decide, from now on, to send a single junior reporter to the White House press briefings. This guy (or lad, or lass) could then write a brief summary of Trump’s, Spicer’s and Conway’s weekly nonsense. And the serious papers could then agree to put this brief summary verbatim in some fixed corner of their entertainment pages, and agree to leave it at that. For it is all chatter and idle talk, and it does not deserve our serious attention. After all, if the serious media insist on calling themselves serious then they should be clear about the distinction between news and entertainment.

What does deserve our attention is what is really going on, in the United States, in the UK, in the countries of the European Community, in Russia, in Irak, in Syria, in Turkey. Here in the West it is still possible to get a fairly accurate picture, at least I feel I am not actively being prevented from getting informed. But I do know that even here, in the Netherlands, I have to struggle very hard for it, and I am profoundly aware of the fact that following the mainstream media is not enough, not even here in Europe.

The mainstream media in the United States are in much worse condition than in continental Europe. The UK is somewhere in between, because of all the poison that the great guy (quote from a Donald Trump tweet) Rupert Murdoch is allowed to spread there on a daily basis. Ruport Murdoch, also very influential in the United States, is a master of blending entertainment with fake news, of keeping people in the dark about what is really going on in the world by catering to their lowest instincts and to their silliest prejudices. His companies own the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the Fox broadcast network, and no doubt many other news outlets that I am not aware of. But in cases where I know Murdoch owns a news source, I know why I should not trust it.

In Russia, if you want to know who spoke the truth about Yeltsin, about Putin, you just have to compile a list of dissenting activists, reporters and journalists that have been murdered, and you know what to read. Just look up on Wikipedia, List of journalists killed in Russia, and you realize Russia has turned into a maffia state shortly after Yeltsin came to power, and still is a maffia state now, where concern for the truth may easily earn you a death warrant. Then you know why you have to read Anna Politkovskaya (with Arch Tait), Is Journalism Worth Dying For? Final Dispatches. Next, if you really want to know more about what is going on, read David Satter (expelled from Russia in 2013) Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003), or The Less You Know,The Better You Sleep (2016). I have not yet read Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped (2015), but I know I should. How do I know these are reliable sources? Because the picture they paint is consistent with what I know from other sources that I consider reliable. Look up Media freedom in Russia. And please, please, do not think these things could never happen in the United States or in Western Europe.

Wikipedia is a great help, almost indispensable in these troubled times, because it is not owned by big money. Please consider making a donation to them. They need our support.

Not to drag my readers down too much, let me end this piece in a lighthearted way. We talked about Wikipedia during the Lorentz workshop on lying. Rineke Verbrugge, one of the organizers of the workshop and also a dear friend of mine, told us that she had one serious qualm with Wikipedia: according to her, too many of the entries are written by white males, and this causes white male bias. I am a white male, and I feel white male bias should be my concern. Fortunately I could draw a laugh from Rineke about this serious issue, by explaining to her that I support Wikipedia in two ways: (i) by making monthly donations, and (ii) by not writing for it myself.