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Welcome to the era of ‘alternative facts’

23 January 2017

12:29 PM

23 January 2017

12:29 PM

Now we have confirmation. The official language of Donald Trump’s White House really is doublespeak. This is how absurd the row over crowd numbers at the inauguration has become.

It started with an extraordinary speech delivered by Trump at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where he appeared to speak off the cuff for about 15 minutes during his first national security speech. He railed against the media – ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth’ – boasted about his appearances on the cover of Time magazine, and displayed his thin skin by exaggerating the size of his inauguration audience – ‘it looked like a million, million and a half people’.

Nonsense, of course. Trump was no doubt upset by photographs showing his audience was considerably smaller than Barack Obama’s in 2009. No matter. Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, gave a briefing. He loyally claimed – despite photographic evidence and transport statistics – that Friday’s inauguration audience was of record size. He said: ‘This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.’


That wasn’t enough to serve as a full stop to the story. A day later, Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to the president, felt obliged to defend the president and his hapless flack. When she appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday morning, this is how she defended his statement: ‘We feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.’ Alternative facts. Not alternative claims or interpretations or statistical models.

The term ‘doublespeak’ – and the idea of using deliberately ambiguous language or carefully selected facts designed to mislead – may sound Orwellian. But that is old hat, the stuff of conventional politicians everywhere. Once again Trump and his team have taken it to the next level with the use of bare-faced lies.

Of course, we get the presidents we deserve. Throughout the election campaign and transition, Trump had been allowed to address the nation directly by TV networks desperate for the ratings he attracts. They would set up their cameras and let them roll. Doublespeak has poured into our living rooms. And it is not just the TV networks who were seduced by Trump’s tall tales.

I think frequently about the editor I worked under at the Herald in Glasgow more than a decade ago. He would shoot down proposed stories with a simple question: ‘That might be what he said, but is it true?’ Gradually we are waking up to the threat that comes from not casting a sceptical eye over the claims and boasts of the American president. Even CNN has realised this. It admitted last year that it probably gave too much free airtime to a bombastic property developer turned reality TV show host, helping him to win the Republican nomination.

It opted not to show Sean Spicer’s press briefing live – a conscious decision, according to Brian Stelter, a CNN host. ‘The decision was to monitor the statement & then report it,’ he tweeted. Another way of saying this might be that CNN has decided to do journalism. And that already, in only its first weekend, the White House feels under siege from journalists.


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