Does truth mean anything in the U.S.? - Keith Roulston editorial
Students studying journalism, in Canada at least, are made to understand that they are an important part of the democratic system – that the best way to have good government is to have informed voters, and it’s the job of reporters to provide truthful information. And then they see what’s happening these days south of our border!
Politicians have always emphasized things that make them look best, but as he has with most things, Donald Trump has broken new boundaries in distortion of the truth during his presidency. As a panelist on a U.S. political talk show said recently, we should have seen it coming right from the day after his inauguration.
That was when Sean Spicer, the first of many White House press secretaries, claimed that more people attended Trump’s inauguration than any previous swearing-in. He accused the media of deliberately underestimating the size of the crowd.
But aerial photographs as well as numbers of people using Washington’s public transit showed the crowd was considerably smaller than in 2009, when Barack Obama was first sworn in.
On the U.S. program, Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway, U.S. Counselor to the President, was asked why Spicer would make such a claim when it could easily be proven wrong. She came up with the now-famous phrase that there are “alternative facts”. We’ve gotten used to alternative facts in the years since.
Another early example of things being turned on its head during the Trump era came with his co-opting of the phrase “fake news”.
Research by the BBC shows that the beginnings of “fake news” can be traced to a small town in Macedonia and a group of young people just trying to make money. Realizing that they could earn money from Facebook for creating content that drew large numbers of readers, these young people decided their best opportunity to do so was through comments on the ongoing 2016 presidential election. The clever young people created catchy, but false, headlines such as “Pope Francis shocks world. Endorses Donald Trump for President.”
These, along with posts that Trump was “the very definition of the American success story”, were the kind of thing that ultra-loyal Trump fans were happy to recommend to all their friends. The young people made their money. Donald Trump benefited with support.
It was his defeated opponent Hilary Clinton who first used the “fake news” term to describe the social media phenomenon. Social media “fake news” reached its silliest/sickest with the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that a Washington pizzeria was being used as headquarters for a child-trafficking ring run by Clinton.
But in the early days of his presidency, Trump did what he has done so often – totally changed the meaning of a phrase. When a reporter asked him a question he didn’t like, Trump called him “fake news”. From then on, “fake news” has come to mean, not news that actually is fake, but news that’s true that Trump and his fans want to redefine as part of a conspiracy against him by the media.
Along the way, Trump associates who were convicted of crimes became not perpetrators, but victims who he must pardon in the name of justice. Although U.S. intelligence agencies say there was Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump says it’s all a hoax and claims that it was really Ukrainian interference on behalf of Clinton.
Traditional allies of the U.S. such as Canada, France and Germany are suddenly blamed for taking advantage of the U.S. while Russia becomes a good friend.
By last week’s Republican National Convention, truth was turned on its head so often, it was unclear if speakers even recognized the truth anymore. Various agencies found at least 20 instances of lies or distortions in Trump’s acceptance speech alone. Vice-President Mike Pence, in advancing his party’s law and order agenda, talked about the killing of a Homeland Security officer in Oakland as if he were killed by protesters opposing police violence against blacks, when the man actually charged is a white supremacist whose goal was to stir up racial tension.
But with the Washington Post’s running tally of Trump’s lies and distortions having topped 20,000 in mid-July, it’s arguable that truth doesn’t matter anymore. While 100 former top Republican officials last week announced they’d be voting for Democratic Party Candidate Joe Biden, he leads polls by only about 10 points. Given Trump’s record of lying, cheating and mismanagement that has cost thousands of lives in the COVID-19 emergency, the lead should be 30-40 per cent at least.
And nobody trusts that Trump won’t make a comeback – or that he will leave office peacefully if he doesn’t.