‘Alternative facts’ — a tale of falsity

(Photo: Cbies, via Shutterstock)

Writing in The New York Times, John McWhorter, an assistant professor of English at Columbia, tells of the Kuna tribe in Panama.  The Kuna chief gives a speech in elevated language, and then an assistant tells the crowd what the chief has just said.

We may like to think of ourselves as an advanced civilization compared to a tribe in Panama, but today’s spokespeople for politicians are doing the same thing.  And one of them has just invented “alternative facts.”

Pity the poor, poor political reporter.

Here we are on “Meet the Press” with Trump Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway, the day after Press Secretary Sean Spicer uttered a series of easily disproved falsehoods about the size of the inauguration crowd.  NBC’s Chuck Todd is asking her about Spicer’s whoppers.  She says:

‘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 —

 Todd, exasperated, cuts 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.”

But what is the wretched spokesperson to do?  He or she cannot say, “Boy, when he gets wound up, my boss can really uncork some whoppers, can’t he?”  You can always say “He misspoke,” but that’s as good as admitting that he was lying, or is pretty foggy upstairs.

Reporters are working harder than ever to sort falsehoods from facts, but it may be a losing effort.No, you have to come up with something like “alternative facts.”

As more and more of us are coming to realize, what is likely to result from this New World of alternative facts is an intermingling of truth and falsehoods in a growing flood of news and fake news from television, tweets, newspapers, radio, Facebook, etc.

Everything is given equal respect and credibility. Fewer and fewer people know the difference between what is true and what is concocted to bail out a politician who has a carefree attitude toward the truth.  Facts are being submerged in a tsunami of stuff that is just being made up. That means the loudest and most persistent voice may very well capture enough support to reign supreme politically. Today’s confused voters are trending toward believing everything that drops from their favored one’s lips, no matter how outlandish.

Reporters are working harder than ever to sort falsehoods from facts, but it may be a losing effort.  The reporters provide proof that the pol is telling whoppers?  That’s just the biased media.  And who cares, anyway?

Politician at a news conference:  The Moon is made of green cheese, OK?”

Reporter:  “That’s not true.  People have been to the Moon and walked on its surface.  We know it isn’t made of green cheese.”

Politician:  “What do you mean ‘We know that?’  Do you really know that?  Have you been there?  That’s just another example of how biased reporters are.  They’re making thing up.  They’re so unfair.  They’re scum.”

Reporter to the politician’s spokesperson, the following day:  “What do you have to say about your boss’s obvious falsehoods?

Spokesperson:  “Well, you know, we all have differing interpretations of things.  You reporters should not be biased and irresponsible and fail to report alternative facts.   You have your so-called facts and we have ours.  The point is, what we need to concentrate on going forward is how our administration is going to improve the lives of working American families.  That’s what we need to be talking about, not something you people like to zero in on because it furthers your elite agenda.”

A little perspective is in order here.  Artful of not, misdirection and mystification on behalf of a politician aren’t all that new.  In fact, today’s obfuscators will have to go some to surpass the Golden Oldies from Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler.  As Watergate unfolded, he told reporters his previous statements on the matter were “inoperative.”

Ziegler had other hits, such as this one in February of 1971 when asked if preparations were underway to invade Laos:

”The president is aware of what is going on in Southeast Asia. That is not to say anything is going on in Southeast Asia.’

The Committee on Public Doublespeak of the National Council of Teachers of English gave Ziegler an award (of sorts) in 1974 for the following statement on safeguarding the White House tapes.  Hold tight.

‘I would feel that most of the conversations that took place in those areas of the White House that did have the recording system would, in almost their entirety, be in existence, but the special prosecutor, the court, and, I think, the American people are sufficiently familiar with the recording system to know where the recording devices existed, and to know the situation in terms of the recording process, but I feel, although the process has not been undertaken yet in preparation of the material to abide by the court decision, really, what the answer to that question is.”

Ziegler died in 2003.  His spirit lives on in the persons of Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer.

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