When Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” engaging in a verbal fistfight with Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press,” the hysterics in the media saw the sky falling. (Chicken Little lives.) George Orwell’s “1984” flew off library shelves as the millions ran to see what “newspeak” and “doublethink” were all about. (Or not.)
“Alternative facts are not facts,” Chuck Todd told her. “They’re falsehoods.”
Well, not necessarily. Fudging facts — turning them into “alternatives” — is both science and art in the nation’s capital. Everyone remembers Bill Clinton’s famous denial of hanky-panky in the Oval Office as depending on “what the meaning of is, is.” The Obama White House spun the most egregious example of fake facts with its assertion, on all the networks, that the Islamic attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was inspired by an obscure American-made video and kept the fake facts alive for days. Everyone at the White House knew better.
The Trump White House was upset about the counting of the numbers at the inauguration, but the greater frustration was about the relentless attempt by the media to delegitimize Donald Trump as president. But for such intemperate attention to the numbers, and dramatic sparring on television, millions of eyes would have glazed over listening to the math, although everyone knew what the Trump press secretary meant when he rebuked the selective media focus on stretchers and lies in the rhetoric. There’s a reason why public approval of the media is at a dismal 14 percent.
The press seriously misled the public and maligned the democratic process in the 2016 election with a foolish dependency on polling data, used by both right and left to prove a point. Statistics were once reliable reference points to back up a position or policy. That’s no longer true. Statistics have lost credibility. They’re regarded as suspicious actors hiding the truth, particularly when employed against conservatives, who are not expected to fight back.
“Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various ‘experts’ who were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016, ” writes William Davies in The Guardian in a provocative analysis of “how statistics have lost their power.” There’s something insulting and arrogant about how they’re used.
These are not dancing numbers from Sesame Street, but numbers used by politicians and pundits who thrive on insolence and affront. Statistics have become less tools for honest analysis than manipulation to make a dubious point. Statistics are out, personal stories are in.
Huge numbers of women marched in Washington and other cities to protest the election result on the day after the inauguration, but it was little noted that Donald Trump had won 53 percent of white women. White is not fashionable this season in media America, but it’s still by far the largest American demographic. This statistic was nevertheless not deemed worthy of attention. When The New York Times finally asked certain women why they voted for Mr. Trump and let them answer in their own voice, one author of a letter to the editor observed that “a little more reporting like this during the campaign might have resulted in more accurate analysis of what was happening.”
The quality of personal experience is more telling than the quantity of statistics. Neither pollsters nor press told stories of women who “felt [the Donald] had what it takes to get the country back on track,” who thought he would help the forgotten men and women whose kids are trapped in failing schools, without access to health care, alarmed by inner city “carnage,” and that he would pick people who would seek to do something about that. Such was not important to marching feminists and those who cater to feminists.
In the intellectual world, where standards once disciplined language and the philosophical canon required precise definitions rooted in common appreciation of reality, the debate over ideas is devoid of indisputable evidence testifying to facts. Stephen Colbert of “Comedy Central” coined the word “truthiness” to describe what speakers want to be true rather than what they know is true. The Merriam-Webster dictionary a decade ago called it the word of the year. Media in the last election, dominated by Hillary fans, suffered from acute truthiness.
“The declining authority of statistics — and the experts who analyze them — is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as ‘post-truth politics,’ ” writes William Davies. Donald Trump shows symptoms of truthiness, too, when he repeats without a whiff of evidence that 3 to 5 million illegal aliens cost him the popular vote.
Now, as president, he doesn’t need truthiness. Neither do Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer need Orwell’s Ministry of Truth to explain the president and his message. He won. The campaign is over. It’s time to govern. Truth will out.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.