WASHINGTON—Lisseth Boon, a veteran investigative journalist in Venezuela, was in her Caracas office on Saturday when she came across the brazenly inaccurate claims from Donald Trump and his chief spokesman about the size of the crowds at his inauguration.
Her response: “Déjà vu.”
“That is so Venezuela,” she wrote on Twitter.
She was not alone.
“I immediately thought of Venezuela … (Former president Hugo) Chavez and his ministers always tried to create a parallel reality,” said investigative journalist Tamoa Calzadilla, who left the country for the U.S. in 2015 because of the oppressive media environment under Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro. “I’m so worried.”
More at thestar.com
The 5 false things Donald Trump has already said as president
Mahir Zeynalov, a prominent journalist deported from Turkey in 2014 for writing about a corruption scandal involving the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, felt a rapid recognition of his own.
“We have seen this movie before in Turkey. Whenever I see what Trump and his team are doing, I say, wait a minute, this is somehow familiar,” he said. “What has been happening in Turkey for years is now being replicated in the United States.”
The early months of the Trump presidency will involve fierce battles about such policy matters as health care, trade and immigration. As its very first fight, though, his administration chose a target that has alarmed observers of authoritarian leaders: verifiable facts.
In a monologue at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency on the first full day of his presidency, Trump blasted the media for correctly reporting on the size of his inauguration crowd, falsely claiming it was actually much bigger. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, then did the same from a podium at the White House, making five provably false claims and walking out.
Spicer’s words were not lies, Trump counsellor Kellyanne Conway said on NBC the next morning. They were, she said, “alternative facts.”
The instantly immortal piece of spin triggered another round of mockery on social media and beyond. For watchdogs in countries that have slid away from democracy, it was not a laughing matter in the slightest. Phillip Gunson, an International Crisis Group senior analyst in Caracas, wrote on Twitter: “This is how it begins: casting doubt on the veracity of things you can see with your own eyes. After a while, you start to doubt your eyes.”
“It doesn’t take long before the ordinary citizen, who is not best equipped to investigate each and every lie (especially when they are coming thick and fast and daily), starts to doubt everything, and even those who don’t necessarily believe the government no longer have a firm grip on reality,” Gunson, a former journalist, said in an email.
“This also makes political debate virtually impossible. Not only is it difficult to reach consensus when the two sides believe diametrically opposite things, (but) the very rules of evidence have been undermined, so there can be no appealing to any agreed means of establishing the truth. Domination is much easier under these circumstances.”
Fomenting doubt about the traditional providers of facts helps inoculate politicians such as Erdogan and Trump against future stories about their wrongdoing, Zeynalov said. He said they are especially sensitive to truths that call into question the supposed popular support they use to justify their governing.
“Crowd sizes, how many people applauded me, how many people voted for me — this is the essence of populist leaders: to make sure that the people who love them, who applaud them, are ‘bigger.’ Whenever you challenge that notion, you’re assaulting the crux of their argument,” he said.
Social and political conditions are different in the U.S., of course, than in Turkey or Venezuela. Spicer struck a friendlier tone on Monday, when he took questions for more than 75 minutes and reluctantly acknowledged that he had provided some incorrect information in his weekend diatribe.
“Our intention is never to lie to you,” he said. “You’re in the same boat: I mean, there are times when you guys tweet something out or write a story and you publish a correction. That doesn’t mean that you were intentionally trying to deceive readers and the American people, does it? And I think that we should be afforded the same opportunity.”
Trump, though, has a proven pattern of intentional deceit, and he has systematically attempted to undermine public faith in scientific and economic authorities. Asked on Monday what the unemployment rate is, Spicer refused to acknowledge even that there is a standard measure of unemployment, saying Trump is “not focused on statistics as much as he is on whether or not the American people are doing better as a whole.”
It was a smooth rejoinder. It was also another instance of Trump’s team urging people to accept his own amorphous definition of truth over long-accepted figures. The U.S. media now faces a delicate balancing act: how to challenge the serial inaccuracy of such an administration without appearing hysterical or gleefully antagonistic.
“Trump wants a flat-out war with the nation’s media for one well-calculated reason: because he believes it will continue to serve his political purposes, as it has for months,” wrote Margret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post. “Journalists should respond by doing their jobs responsibly, fairly and fearlessly, in service of the public good.”
But even basic journalistic acts like fact-checking Trump’s claims can further alienate a conservative base already inclined to see the mainstream press as biased and petty. The challenge, said Charlie Sykes, a longtime conservative talk radio host who is critical of Trump, is that the president and his aides “flood the zone” with a gusher of audacious lies.
“You can’t keep the outrage meter up all the time,” Sykes said. “I would think it would be incumbent on the media to do everything possible to rebuild its credibility. Which is to be aggressive and hold him to account, but don’t necessarily take the bait and become completely oppositional.”
“I can say those words. What that actually means, I don’t know. In terms of a day-to-day ‘how do you behave,’ I just don’t know.”
Zeynalov threw up his hands, too, saying nobody had yet figured out the “$5-million question.”
Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, said major media organizations should “send the interns” to White House briefings, leaving top reporters to dig into “the real story” elsewhere and avoiding their being used as strategic punching bags.
“Defend and monitor democracy,” Calzadilla pleaded. “Colleagues and editors have to defend journalism principles with courage,” said Boon.
Some U.S. editors are already departing from their old practices. In a highly unusual fact-check headline at the top of its Sunday front page, the New York Times wrote: “Slamming media, Trump advances two falsehoods.”
No other major newspaper did anything similar.