Facts now have alternatives. This brand new concept emerged on TV this past weekend as one more new wrinkle in the world envisioned, and being formed by, the newly installed Trump administration.
It is a world in which “facts” are apparently malleable -- capable of being reshaped into something else that are still facts (sort of), but not necessarily the same facts, even when applied to the same things such as crowd photos from President Trump's and President Obama's inaugurations, for example.
The phrase “alternative facts” was blurted out Sunday morning on NBC's “Meet the Press” by Kellyanne Conway, adviser to President Trump and one of the masterminds behind his election victory. She offered up this phrase under questioning from Chuck Todd, who Trump once called “sleepy eyes Chuck Todd” in an interview with Bill O’Reilly in 2015.
“Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” Conway said in response to Todd's questions about the seemingly hostile tone presidential press secretary Sean Spicer took with the White House press corps in his first press briefing since Trump's inauguration on Friday.
“Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts …,” Conway said airily, referring to the Trump administration's insistence that Friday's inaugural drew record crowds.
To his credit, Todd reacted with incredulity. The phrase “alternative facts” struck him as so ludicrous that he actually laughed in her face. “Alternative facts?” he asked, laughing. “… Look, alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods,” he attempted to explain.
In the video of the face-off that you can watch here (from which the above screen grab was made), it is possible to form the impression that even Conway realized she goofed, or knew she was about to goof, in coining this new phrase.
Watch her carefully before she utters the words. She almost seems to choke on them before saying them. A few moments later, watch as she adjusts her hair while attempting to explain what she meant -- basically by trying to shift the conversation to some news stories that apparently reported erroneously that Trump was removing a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office.
Whatever. Clearly, we are entering the era envisioned by Orwell. Soon, black will be white. War will be peace. Mexican immigrants will be bad, but also good. Removing a bust from the Oval Office will really mean not removing it.
It's as if Conway had invented a new kind of multiple choice test. In the traditional multiple choice scenario, you had no option other than to pick one correct answer from, say, four choices -- A, B, C or D.
In this new scenario, two or more answers could be correct even if they might seem to be at odds with each other. Remember also that you sometimes had a fifth choice -- E: None of the above, and/or “All of the above.” Now, you might have “two of the above,” or maybe “three of the above.” What difference does it make? We now have alternatives.
In this particular case, we have “alternative” photos that seem to depict two different things. They “seem” to show conclusively that the Washington Mall was much more crowded with people for Obama's swearing-in than Trump's. But according to the “alternative facts” point-of-view, seeing is not necessarily believing.
Where the tallying of large crowds is concerned, I have always viewed them skeptically. The figures put forth by “authorities” such as city governments (the crowds in and around Times Square, for example, on New Year's Eve), protest organizers (the numbers of women who marched in Saturday's anti-Trump events, for instance) and, yes, the crowds on hand for inaugurals in Washington have long struck me as suspicious.
Under scrutiny, it often turns out that these “counts” are likely unknowable, and as a result, inaccurate and exaggerated -- sometimes deliberately.
In the case of Donald Trump, his administration's claim that his inauguration outdrew all others is just like the phone calls he used to make to journalists on the TV beat during the first season of “The Apprentice” on the morning after an episode had aired. In these calls, he would “report” to us that the show had clobbered everything else on TV that night in the ratings.
A short while later, when we all received the overnights from the other sources who sent them to us every morning, we learned that Trump's claims were false. The show had almost never won its time period, nor would it rank as highly in the weekly ratings (that journalists receive every Tuesday) as Trump said it would.
I first wrote about this phenomenon here in the TV Blog in August 2015. Trump's insistence that his inaugural crowd beat all others comes from the same old, tired playbook.