“Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.
Alice: The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.
Humpty: The question is which is to be master – that’s all.
— Alice Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
Four days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, an unlikely novel reached the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. It was not the latest potboiler by John Grisham, Stephen King, or any other likely suspect. Topping the list on 24 January was 1984, George Orwell’s 68-year-old masterpiece about a dystopian society in which the ruling authorities routinely alter the meanings of words and facts to suit their own purposes.
Trump is not to be confused with Orwell’s Big Brother. But he has perhaps moved in that direction by making and doubling down on easily refuted or unverifiable claims about topics ranging from the size of his inaugural crowds, to the extent of voter fraud in the 2016 election. Even more audaciously, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway put forth the claim that actual facts could be refuted by “alternative facts.” All this is an extension of Trump’s longtime use of what he calls “truthful hyperbole,” which others might call a contradiction in terms. He also has a long history of relying on alternative facts on topics ranging from climate change to Barack Obama’s birthplace.
In addition, Trump has benefited from disinformation coming from fake news sites, which carried reports that Pope Francis and Denzel Washington had endorsed him, along with reports that the Clinton campaign was engaging in election fraud. Fake news is typically produced on websites aiming to make a higher return on ads by driving up traffic. But in 2016 they may have been intended to drive election returns as well.
A New York University study found that the average American could recall four times as many pro-Trump false news stories as pro-Clinton stories. Moreover, Trump has ensured that this phenomenon can only grow by inviting the fake news website Gateway Pundit (sample headline: “Exposed — Hillary Hitman Breaks Silence”) to take part in White House news briefings.
In this political environment, all that stands between President Trump and a picture of reality more to his liking is the media. Although he reaped the benefits of heavy publicity as he moved from dark horse to front runner during the primaries, coverage of Trump’s personal traits and policies has been consistently – often brutally – negative. A Harvard study of general election news found that, among stories about Trump with a clear tone, 77% were negative. Data from previous studies suggest that this was the worst press endured by a presidential nominee in at least three decades. This critical coverage has been reflected in historically low public approval ratings for Trump, both as a party nominee and as president-elect.
So it’s little wonder why that Trump has pioneered the use of social media – preeminently Twitter — to provide an unmediated channel of communication to the electorate. In so doing he benefits from the ways people process information. It is a commonplace observation that increasing political polarization has affected the sources of information that people seek out, so that any new information they obtain tends to reinforce what they already believe. But less conscious process are at work as well. Various mechanisms related to selective perception lead people to unconsciously skew the information they are exposed to in the direction of what they already believe. And the phenomenon of cognitive misattribution leads people to forget the source of information they retain. Thus, they may not even be aware that their beliefs are based on sources that have low credibility.
But for Trump’s purposes, it is not enough to beat the media at its own game by putting the first rough draft of history out himself. It is also necessary to discredit his journalistic competitors, both by contradicting their version of reality and by luring them into an oppositional and adversarial stance that undermines their claim to be unbiased chroniclers of events. To this end, he has launched what he calls a “running war with the media,” which he regards as “the opposition party.” He has berated journalists as “the most dishonest human beings on earth” and complained about their “dishonesty, total deceit and deception.”
Trump’s greatest advantage in this enterprise is that journalists may help do his job for him. Because of their perceived partisan biases, negativism, sensationalism, and other sins, journalists have already come dangerously close to losing their claim to representing the public in speaking truth to power. A 2016 Gallup poll found that public trust in the media has sunk to its lowest level – only 32% – since Gallup began asking the question in 1972.
Even that number is likely to drop if journalists take Trump’s bait by tipping over into what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls “hysterical oppositionism.” The shrillness of such a response is illustrated by Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan’s column headlined “A hellscape of lies and distorted reality awaits journalists covering President Trump.” Similarly hyperbolic are stories and columns comparing Trump to Hitler or fascists more generally. The problem with such an in-your-face approach is that it turns journalists into partisans, bringing them down to Trump’s level. And like Br’er Rabbit’s encounter with the tar baby, the more they push back, the closer he’ll stick to them.
The best way for journalists to resolve this dilemma is to trust the public. That means respecting the line between fact-based and opinion journalism, tamping down the editorializing and the attitude, and putting out the facts for everyone to see. Yes, a proportion of readers and viewers will see a funhouse mirror image of the picture they paint. But this is hardly limited to news about Trump. And his poll ratings prove that his public image is not immune to bad press. In the end, Trump’s attempts to construct an alternative political reality will founder because his claims come down to the old Marx Brothers punchline: “Who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”
Featured image credit: Donald and Melania Trump speak at the post-inauguration Armed Services Ball on January 20, 2017 by Sgt. Kalie Jones. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.