Lies, truth and alternative facts: Trump's bad weekend

"If ever the time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin." --Samuel Adams, revolutionary (1722-1803)

"We shall overcomb" -- Women's March protest sign this past weekend

It is remarkable to me that in less than three days as President of the United States Donald Trump has managed to so exuberantly, beautifully and effortlessly alienate the press, bring a million or more women to the streets, leave himself and his closest aides open to exquisite satire and scare the shit out of sane people everywhere.

At first, in the lead up to his inauguration, the mainstream press were wary but respectful -- willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. They expected or hoped that the bombast, early morning tweeting and serial lies of a master fabulist would abate when he actually stepped into the highest office in the land. And in the U.S. the respect for the Office of the President, if not the President himself, casts a long shadow. In short, they played by the same rules they always have. But, even after he became President it was clear the press was enjoying polite croquet while Trump fielded a rugby team.

But then, on Saturday, everything changed. On Saturday, standing in front of the CIA's Wall of Heroes, the President of the United States lied about the size of the crowd that witnessed his inauguration. Then Sean Spicer, his beleaguered press secretary, compounded and repeated the lie to the press and then chastised them for misrepresenting and downplaying the volume of spectators.

The lies, and the excuses were so transparent, so easily proven false, they were breathtakingly foolish. The transit records, photographs and expert evaluations showed the crowds to be far smaller than Trump's camp touted.

The New York Times was clear and direct in its headline, it called Trump's claims "false." Later in the weekend members of the mainstream press in the U.S. woke up to the reality of the rugby team.

"Trump and His Press Secretary Flagrantly Lied On Their First Full Day in Office. That Matters." read a headline on the Huffington Post.

The tech and culture site recode.com headlined a piece about social media reaction to the lies with: "Trump's press secretary lied his first day on the job and became a viral meme."

On Sunday, Trump's adviser and apologist Kellyanne Conway told Meet the Press that Spicer hadn't lied, he had just supplied journalists with "alternative facts."

But she wasn't getting away with it, not on Meet the Press itself, and not online where a Hive (a Vanity Fair product) headline read: "Kellyanne Conway introduces concept of 'alternative facts' to account for Sean Spicer's lies."

All these headlines are important for a couple of reasons. First, they used the word "lies." Nobody uttered falsehoods or misspoke. They deliberately and knowingly aimed to mislead -- they lied and got called on it. As Dan Rather succinctly put it on the weekend: "These are not normal times." 

Second, the media made it clear that Trump, Spicer and Conway lied and misled in the headlines of their stories. They didn't say: "Trump's Press Secretary Chastises Media for Downplaying Inauguration Crowd Numbers." The media outlets pointed out the lies in right in the most visible part of their stories. That's key as many mobile phone users simply browse those vital pieces of microcontent and move on.

Around the world those same mobile devices and computer screens exploded with almost instant satire about the sad state of Presidential veracity. Posts using the hashtag #alternativefacts sprang up almost instantly after Conway's Meet the Press performance. "The iPhone features all-day battery life. #alternativefacts," "I'm engaged to Nick Jonas #alternativefacts," "I can fly, read minds, apparate and AM Harry Potter #alternativefacts."

Meanwhile, at #kellyanneconway, we saw: "Is #KellyAnneConway an alternative human being from an alternative universe?" "If lying during a press conference is 'alternative facts,' is cheating during a test 'alternative studying'? #KellyanneConway."

There was even a mocked-up Mattel doll called Propaganda Barbie. 

Here's the point of all this. Over the course of one weekend the press has realized the game has changed, social media killed it with savage, pointed satire and near immediate fact-checking of Trump's press secretary shredded his credibility.

The gloves are off, on both sides, but so is the mask, the politeness and the benefit of the doubt. In his book, 1984 George Orwell wrote:

"The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final most essential command … and if all others accepted the lie, which the Party imposed, if all records told the same tale, then the lie passed into history and became truth."

Fortunately, in this case, the lie didn't last the weekend, and press reports, the first draft of that history, are clear about the true nature of the dirty weekend. May it so continue.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Listen to an audio version of this column, delivered by the author, here.

Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/flickr

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