If there is one video clip that describes the new reality for the political media — and for the truth — during the President Trump era, it is the one above.
It's a discussion about White House press secretary Sean Spicer, on his first full day in that job, having taken to the podium and made easily disproved claims about the size of Trump's inauguration crowd.
“Why put him out there for the very first time, in front of that podium, to utter a provable falsehood?” Chuck Todd asked Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. “It's a small thing, but the first time he confronts the public, it's a falsehood?”
After some tense back and forth, Conway offered this:
Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You're saying it's a falsehood, and they're giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that. But the point really is —
At this point, a visibly exasperated Todd cut in. “Wait a minute. Alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered . . . were just not true. Alternative facts are not facts; they're falsehoods.”
“Fake news” is so yesterday. “Alternative facts” is where it's at now.
This, of course, isn't the first time the Trump team and its supporters have responded to journalists calling out their falsehoods by claiming the truth isn't so black and white or that it's not a big deal.
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski offered this after the election, comparing Trump with a guy at the bar and saying, “You’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
That same week, pro-Trump CNN pundit Scottie Nell Hughes offered this on Diane Rehm's show:
One thing that's been interesting this campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts — they're not really facts. Everybody has a way — it's kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There's no such thing, unfortunately anymore, of facts.
Hughes is not an official spokesman for the Trump team, but that last comment is basically what Conway is arguing today — that there are so many shades of gray that clear facts just don't really exist.
This, of course, is a hugely cynical worldview. But it's about the only way the Trump team can fight back, given how questionable the new president's purported facts have been throughout his time as a politician. Whether you like Trump or not, it's demonstrably true that he says things that are easily proved false, over and over again. The question the media has regularly confronted is not whether Trump's facts are correct but whether to say he's deliberately lying or not.
A memo is circulating on social media right now that claims to be from someone who worked in a past White House and tries to explain what the Trump team is doing.
It's not clear where this memo came from, but no matter the provenance, it makes some good points. Trump himself has been using his own brand of the truth, which is often false, for months. And there was really no way that his administration wasn't going to have to deal with that same tendency during his presidency.
On Saturday in Spicer's statement and now Sunday in Conway's interview, the two are attempting to set a precedent that says they don't recognize the concept of facts as the media has come to define them; they have their own “alternative facts” and they'll rely on those.
And as brazen as it is, it's likely to appeal to that one-third of Americans the memo describes as being Trump's base. Polls have regularly shown a large portion of Republicans are more apt to believe Trump's claims even if they are pretty patently false, as Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell wrote last month. It's a symptom of media distrust.
The New York Times's Glenn Thrush tweeted this Saturday after Spicer's statement:
Both “fake news” and the concept of “alternative facts” are now cudgels in the effort to obfuscate when reporters point out that Trump and his team have their facts wrong. Welcome to our new political reality — or rather, realities.