New Administration’s Deployment of “Alternative Facts” Means Role of the Press and Open Government Advocates Is More Vital Than Ever

By Paul Marks

We survived the first 100 days of the chaotic Trump administration and the republic still stands. Can as much be said about the public’s demand for truth? And for transparency in government?

In digesting public affairs – both government statements and news media reporting – do Americans still hunger for knowledge of what truly is, or are we content to swallow whatever story line reinforces our comfortable biases? The answer is less clear than it once was.

“No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days,” Trump said on April 18. Presidential historians beg to differ, noting that the grandiose claim ignores the fact that his repeal of Obamacare failed in Congress, his attempt to ban immigrants from seven Muslim majority nations was shot down in court and his vaunted border wall with Mexico remains unfunded.

But one thing undeniably has been accomplished: Facts seldom disputed in the past are being challenged by “alternative facts.”

To wit:

• That “record crowd” rallying at Trump’s inauguration that the new president crowed about, insisting it was the largest ever? Never mind that     starkly contrasting photos from 2009 and 2013 gave that claim the lie.

• Trump took to Twitter to deplore “illegal wiretaps” he said were installed by Obama’s henchmen at Trump Tower. Never mind that no evidence was found by the FBI, CIA, Congress or anyone else. “The New York Times wrote about it,” Trump falsely insisted.

• Trump’s approval ratings at this point in his first term are the lowest of any president since World War II. Never mind, the president said. Those polls should be disregarded as “fake news.”

The New York Times tallied at least one false or misleading claim per day on 91 of Trump’s first 100 days in office. That included:

• The unfounded allegation that 3 million votes were illegally cast during the 2016 election,

• A baseless, self-serving claim that the national murder rate is at its highest point in 47 years,

• An erroneous assertion that Americans who quit searching for work are “considered statistically employed,”

• Calling anti-Trump protestors who lined the roads in Florida “big crowds of enthusiastic supporters,”

• A spurious assertion that the Times had apologized to subscribers for “false and angry” coverage of the president.

• And of course, the “Bowling Green Massacre” that Kellyanne Conway said “didn’t get covered” by the press – mainly because it didn’t happen.

Trump’s willingness to spout outright untruth and then defend it became more and more apparent as the presidential race wore on. It amplified the shock felt by many when he won.

His flimsy grasp of essential history, government policy and international affairs played into his tension-raising phone call with the president of Taiwan, which raised questions about America’s “one China” policy. It continued on his 100th day, when Trump told an interviewer that Andrew Jackson – a “populist” president like himself – was disturbed at the Civil War. That conflict began 16 years after Jackson’s death.

But most ominous may be the new president’s unrelenting attack on the veracity of the professional news media.

Trump regularly refers to the “fake news media” and derides the press as “the enemy of the American people.” To his supporters, this lends credence to right-wing propaganda charging that any hint of flaw or bias renders news reports “fake news,” untrustworthy salvos from the wrong side of the rhetorical battle.

On Day 100, that was a prominent feature of Trump’s speech at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa. Charging that editors and reporters at the White House Correspondents Dinner that evening were gloomily “consoling each other” because he’d opted not to attend, Trump gloated that he was “thrilled” to be out of Washington and among “much better people.” It was the first time in roughly half a century that a sitting president chose to skip the collegial gathering.

Political analyst David Gergen, an advisor to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and other presidents, called Trump’s sneering attack “the most divisive speech I ever have heard from a sitting American president.”

Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist, said left-leaning bias at some news outlets irks him, too, but Trump’s tactics undermine the First Amendment and the ability of a free nation to govern itself.”When you start to suggest that there are alternative facts and you start to criticize your opponents for fake news,” he told National Public Radio, “you’re undermining the credibility of the one institution that holds all the others accountable.”

Trump shows no sign of moderating his combative stance, and that bodes ill for the cause of open government.

“It’s difficult to know whether he actually can’t distinguish the real from the unreal — or whether he intentionally conflates the two to befuddle voters, deflect criticism and undermine the very idea of objective truth,” the Los Angeles Times said in an editorial. “Whatever the explanation, he is encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media — and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions.”

Coupled with that is an unabashed attack on environmental protection mounted by a billionaire president whose White House guests over the past 100 days included scores of corporate CEOs. At the EPA, safe drinking water rules are being challenged, and mere discussion of “climate change” has been squelched.

In the wake of all this, teachers and librarians in public schools across the nation received by mail a slim, glossy booklet on the topic. Published by The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank known for attacking climate science, it is titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming.” The booklet argues that evidence for anthropogenic climate change is flawed and inconclusive.

Never mind that studies done in 2010 and 2013 found that 97 percent of credentialed climate researchers agree that fossil-fuels burning and other human activities are warming the planet.

“The Heartland Institute is now exploiting this opportunity to influence the next generation on a national scale,” said climatologist Curt Stager, who teaches at Paul Smith’s College. “The book is unscientific propaganda from authors with connections to the [institute’s] disinformation machinery.”

Trump’s head of the EPA is a longtime climate change denier, and the president is considering withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Paris accord by which the nation pledged to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the scientific consensus that has built for decades, his reasoning is plain: It’s the unacceptable constraints lower greenhouse emissions would somehow impose on beleaguered American corporations.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump said. Seems everything these days is made in China, right?

The new administration’s resistance to transparency means a strong, assertive Fourth Estate and educational organizations such as the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government are more important than ever.

In late April, the White House refused to release information on payments that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had received from foreign governments, including from the Kremlin-backed television station RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and other Russian firms. The internal documents were requested by the House Oversight Committee.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal told The New Yorker in April that Trump’s attacks on federal judges and members of Congress who contest his initiatives betokens a lack of regard for the coequal powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Unchecked, he said, that tendency may in time lead to a “constitutional crisis” reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era refusal to comply with an appellate-court judgment ordering release of the secret White House tapes. Should Trump choose to defy a future subpoena from the FBI or a congressional committee, Blumenthal said, “there may be the sort of confrontation that we haven’t really seen in the same way since United States versus Nixon.”