“Is it your intention to always tell the truth?”
That question, posed by ABC News’s Jonathan Karl at Sean Spicer’s first briefing as White House spokesman, was extraordinary. It demonstrated the depths to which White House-press relations had sunk just three days into Donald Trump’s presidency.
There was cause for mistrust on both sides. Mr. Spicer had presented false information, later amended, in a statement to the press on Saturday. And a Time magazine reporter had misreported that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office, a mistake that was quickly corrected.
But there’s something much deeper at play here than just miscues between White House staff and reporters in the early days of a new administration. The words “truth” and “fact” are themselves now objects of fierce debate.
The phrase “alternative facts,” used by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway in discussing the size of President Trump’s inauguration audience, has entered the lexicon. Sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” have skyrocketed.
Trump himself is fanning the flames by continuing to boast about the size of his inaugural crowd and make unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud last November, which he says cost him the popular vote. The shift in style from former President Obama to Trump has been sharp.
But Trump is in many ways the culmination of a years-long trend. By setting himself as a crusader against Washington and the media, he has played on Americans’ declining trust in both.
“It’s fascinating to watch,” says Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political discourse at Texas A&M University in College Station. “And it’s as much about Donald Trump personally as it is about the context of this historical moment.”
Word of the year: post-truth
Right after the November election, Oxford Dictionaries announced “post-truth” as word of the year, as a way to describe “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The “post-truth” concept has been around a while; Oxford Dictionaries reports the term’s first known use in 1992. But its usage spiked last year, both with the populist Brexit movement, resulting in the UK’s vote to quit the European Union, and Trump’s rise to the presidency.
But the advent of social media and a steady decline in the public’s trust in institutions – including government and the media – have prepared the ground.
"Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time," Oxford Dictionaries' Casper Grathwohl tells the BBC.
Trump’s use of language, repetitive and at times hyperbolic in its populist appeal, fit right into this trend. And his success didn’t come out of nowhere, despite the insistence of many in the media that he couldn’t win.
His words resonated with a slice of the electorate that had felt ignored by both Democrats and Republicans alike. His supporters took him seriously, but not literally, as an oft-cited essay in the Atlantic observed.
Taking Trump seriously – and literally
Now Trump is president, and world leaders are taking his words both seriously and literally. On Thursday morning, the Mexican president canceled a visit to the US after Trump tweeted that he should do so if Mexico is unwilling to pay for the border wall.
Members of Congress, too, need Trump to play it straight with facts – that is, agreed-upon information that will shape legislation.
It is a given that politicians say things that aren’t true all the time. But for Trump, the propensity for unsubstantiated claims has risen to a new level.
His incendiary assertion that the votes of illegal immigrants in the November election cost him the popular vote, which he lost by almost 3 million votes, threatens to undermine trust in the democratic process, analysts say.
When asked by ABC’s David Muir about the claim in a Wednesday interview, Trump cited a Pew Research Center report from 2012. Mr. Muir pointed out that the author found “no evidence of fraud,” but Trump did not back down. He has called for an investigation into the alleged fraud.
Trump also insisted to Muir that he had the biggest inaugural crowd in history, “including television and everything else.” It’s the qualifiers that give Trump some wiggle room; living-streaming is impossible to quantity.
But that’s the issue – inauguration crowd size – that put both Mr. Spicer and Ms. Conway in the center of the weekend maelstrom over what’s true and what is Trumpian hyperbole.
Among many questionable assertions, Spicer on Saturday had put out inaccurate figures for Metro ridership in Washington on inauguration day, numbers that he later corrected.
“I’ve gotten out of the quantifying game,” Spicer said with a smile Tuesday at his daily briefing.
On Sunday, Ms. Conway uttered the now-infamous phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, who immediately replied: "Alternative facts aren't facts, they are falsehoods."
The entire exchange became a textbook case of how low trust between reporters and a new administration can devolve into recriminations. “I think we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here,” Conway told Mr. Todd.
In fact, Todd might have heard Conway out before labeling her statement a falsehood, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Spicer was presenting alternative ways of seeing the numbers,” says Ms. Jamieson. “Some turned out to be false. But he also talked about people watching [the inauguration] on mobile devices; that’s an alternative way of counting the numbers.”
The larger point, she says, is that when speaking off the cuff, everyone needs to cut one another some slack.
“It would be good if everyone on all sides called a truce,” says Jamieson. “The problem is, Trump made many, many, many false statements as a candidate. It’s not that the press is engaging in this high level of vigilance for no reason whatsoever.”
And now, analysts say, the stakes will only get bigger. Today, it’s the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd; tomorrow, it could be the state of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
When is a false statement a lie?
Another debate raging in the press is whether to refer to false statements made by Trump and his aides a “lie.” The New York Times has used “lie” on occasion regarding a Trump statement; NPR sticks with “falsely stated.”
The word “lie” suggests an intent to deceive, and without firm evidence, that can be impossible to determine. Ms. Mercieca of Texas A&M expresses concern that calling a statement a lie will alienate a segment of the audience. And, she says, “I think it contributes to polarization.”
The news media face another profound challenge: The public deeply distrusts them – far more, in fact, than it distrusts Trump.
But the media, of course, are not a monolithic entity. Consumers of news pick their favorite outlets, often determined by ideological viewpoint, thus leading to further fracturing of society.
“I think that facts do matter, and I think Donald Trump has been able to take advantage of the fact that we live in different media realities,” says Mercieca. “Those mediated realities contain their own complete worldview, with their own facts. But those two worlds don’t often speak to each other, and in fact are very distrustful of one another.”
During the campaign, focus groups of voters sponsored by the Annenberg Center brought out those starkly competing realities. At one session last June with working-class voters near Pittsburgh, several voters said they liked Trump because he’s “honest.” And by that, they didn’t seem to be referring to the accuracy of his statements but that he says what he thinks.
“I agree on the honesty,” said Glenda, a 40-something bartender. “We’ve been lied to for so long.”
Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information, notes that politicians tend to speak in generalities, but Trump is different.
“Trump is exactly the sort of campaigner George Orwell said people should want,” Mr. Nunberg adds, referring to the British author’s famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” which slammed intentionally vague political language. “Trump says what he thinks, and doesn’t use circumlocutions. People hear it as straight talk.”