Alternatives to alternative facts

If you’re interested in the media then you’ll have read by now about the absurd claim by the new administration in the White House that Donald Trump’s inauguration had more people attending than any other in history. Worse, you will have heard his counselor Kellyanne Conway claiming that this was just an “alternative fact“.

As an aside, the really chilling thing is her statement at the beginning of the piece, in which she says the White House may have to re-evaluate its relationship with the press if the press continues to be hostile. This is directly counter to freedom of speech.

Back to “alternative facts” though. It’s the worst sort of lie, because it makes the speaker sound as though they’re wriggling, as if they’re defensive and incompetent.

Oh, and in my media training sessions we’d have focused on what someone might have been able to say without actually lying.

Alternatives to alternative facts

The initial comments, from press secretary Sean Spicer, were about reportage that the crowds for Trump’s inauguration were smaller than those for Obama’s first term. Let’s assume, for a moment, that there had been some miscalculation – maybe a rush just after the picture of the sparse Trump crowds had been taken (unlikely but not impossible).

The likelihood is that Spicer, even with evidence, would not have won against the press. So he could have taken an alternative tack. Something like:

“Yes, the first African American president was always going to be a crowd puller. That wasn’t about Obama, it was about a moment in time.”

You might disagree. I might disagree. We can see a line of reasoning nonetheless.

Or he could have played down the significance of the sheer number of people:

“Crowd numbers are less important than what the president does for those people in the crowd in the next four years. We believe a lot went wrong in the Democrat years and the next four or eight years is going to be about fixing it.”

Again, you might or might not think that’s fair enough. You couldn’t call it an actual lie, though.

Think of the reaction

The overriding likelihood is that the numbers were indeed down on Obama’s inauguration. However, even when you’re right, you have to think of the impact in public. Lecturing the press with venom in your voice isn’t going to play well, and sending the counselor onto NBC to criticise further and threaten people with diminished contact is crazy. First, you look petulant rather than professional, and second, if you’re only going to tell whopping great “alternative facts” when you do appear, who cares if they can’t talk to you?

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