How many people do you think were at the inauguration?
Do you think the crowd was a little thin at last week’s presidential inauguration? The White House would like you to believe an alternative fact: This year’s audience was the largest in history. Period.
If you’re not caught up on the administration’s latest bit of creative license, you can watch the full clip here:
Some might call these statements lies. Now we’re writing about a made-up term and counting heads in a crowd. “Alternative facts” didn’t get a great reception at its television debut, but whether or not that phrase keeps making the rounds, its philosophy remains. Trump will continue pushing easily-disproven lies, as he did during his entire journey to the White House.
What we’ve learned from these lies is how tenuous our collective hold on reality is. When someone earnestly believes the 2017 inauguration broke audience records, they’ve drifted out of our world into one endorsed by the presidential administration.
Social media was supposed to prevent this from happening. As he rose to prominence, Mark Zuckerberg advocated for radical transparency, saying, “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Twitter, used as a tool to plan protests during the Arab Spring, was tailor-made to instantly keep lies in check. Instead of this utopia of truth telling and citizen journalism, we’ve created an echo chamber for hate speech and lies, mixed in with wedding announcements and ads.
How does the press do its job in this environment?
We start with the fundamentals. Healthy scrutiny has always been a virtue in journalism, but we need an extra dose for this administration. Verifying crowd sizes isn’t the most interesting journalistic work, and it sucks away time and resources from projects that are. But when we can’t take any claim or statement at face value, it’s necessary work that provides the foundation of everything else.
Beacuse, in the midst of gaslighting and gag rules, one of our most important roles is that of record keeper. We need to make sure the truth gets recorded, to write down everything that actually happens in the next four years and everything that Trump claims. And in recording those claims, we need to act as adversary rather than mouthpiece, making sure our audience cannot confuse false statements for reality. News organizations are already starting to make this adjustment in how they write headlines:
This kind of work will stop allegations and rumors from subsuming reality.
Alt-fact isn’t a good look for America, nor is it ideal for a free and independent press trying to hold power accountable. Hopefully, though, the next four years will create a better media, one prepared to serve as a foil to administrations and go beyond official channels to dig up the truth. We’re being taken back to the fundamentals of reportage. Everything we build from here will be stronger.