Sunday 9 December 2018

We want the facts, ma'am, just the facts - but whose facts?

Kellyanne Conway. Photo: Reuters
Kellyanne Conway. Photo: Reuters
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

It is about two weeks since Kellyanne Conway used the term "alternative facts" in her challenge to the correct estimates of the crowd at the Trump inauguration, and in that time I have seen nothing but outright ridicule of her choice of words.

I was enjoying it myself, for a while, as "alternative facts" became an instant classic, a risible symbol of the Trump junta's seemingly endless capacity for brutish wrong-headedness and fabulous dishonesty.

And then, from the mists of journalistic time, the name of Claud Cockburn drifted into my mind. Was it not Claud, a great journalist and a man of the left, who advised us that there are no such things as "facts"? That this notion of facts lying out there "like gold nuggets waiting to be unearthed" is itself a form of fiction?

Yes, I think it was Claud, a proud member of the Communist Party, who, according to Private Eye colleague Richard Ingram, believed that it was "the inspiration of the journalist which supplied the story. Speculation, rumour, even guesswork were all part of the process, and an inspired phrase was worth reams of cautious analysis".

Therefore, the "facts" might tell you that a businessman is at his desk on the top floor of a skyscraper named after him, with his feet on the table and various servants at his command, giving all the outward signs of extravagant success - but that we may deduce that such is his need to indulge in this ostentation, there's a very good chance that the man is bankrupt.

Which is not a "fact" in the obvious sense, not something you can see in front of you and write in your notebook, but which might well be described as, shall we say, an alternative fact.

Maybe in the fullness of time it might even be seen as a better fact than the ones you could see in front of you and write in your notebook.

Certainly in this complicated world, any notion that there is some universally accepted set of facts out there, "like gold nuggets waiting to be unearthed", is even more simplistic now than it was in Claud Cockburn's time.

So it was undoubtedly ridiculous for Kellyanne Conway to be pretending that the crowds at the US president's inauguration were as big as Trump wanted them to be. But it was just about equally ridiculous that her concept of "alternative facts" was considered by much of the journalistic world to be the most hilarious thing they had heard for weeks - and they'd heard a few.

It reminded me somewhat of that strange notion which developed during the campaign, that if respectable newspapers kept "fact-checking" Trump, it might eventually make a difference. That this was "good journalism", which has a moral value anyway, even if it makes no difference. But in truth it was not good journalism, it was bad journalism, in that it wildly missed the point, and it did so in the most self-regarding way.

Everything that Trump says is wrong - even on the odd occasion when he accidentally might happen to be right, he is probably right for the wrong reasons. So at the time, it struck me that checking Trump for factual accuracy was like reporting a ball-game and deciding - just because it makes you feel better - that the team which committed the least fouls should be the winner.

And in missing that point they missed the bigger point, that Trump was beating Clinton, even as she gave another shout-out to the "fact-checkers" who were doing such a swell job.

Journalists are indeed "the opposition" now - Steve Bannon was right about that, for his own wrong reasons. So it behoves everyone in our ancient trade to display a little more sophistication in these matters, to free ourselves from all this feverish self-righteousness.

And just to get better - my friends, that stuff about the size of Trump's little hands was only vaguely amusing the first time, and when it was still going a week later, we of "the opposition" were no longer winning that encounter.

In its own over-excitement, Morning Ireland declared in its headlines that the new judge would tilt the balance of the US Supreme Court "back in favour of conservatives".

Later, Caitriona Perry had to explain that the new man was replacing a right-winger who had died, and that the balance had not in fact tilted.

There was consternation, too, when the regime's spokesman Sean Spicer treated the White House correspondents with disrespect, filling the room with bulls**t about the inauguration. Yet arguably, like their counterparts in Westminster and Leinster House, the question is not whether those purveyors of dinner-party journalism should withdraw in protest, the question is, what the hell are they doing there in the first place?

Looking back, in this demented atmosphere it was hardly surprising that very few of "the opposition" even noticed that in dissing football and MMA, Meryl Streep in her speech at the Golden Globes had inadvertently dumped on the recreations of blue-collar America, who will in all likelihood decide the next US election as they decided the last one.

We can't afford that kind of carelessness any more, that absence of self-reproach that is indeed almost Trumpian, that lack of awareness of how "the opposition" helped Trump to his victory. How they were so completely right about everything, and yet somehow they got it so wrong.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss