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“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Aldous Huxley
Facts are important. Putting facts in context to tell the truth is even more important. There is an old joke from the Soviet era which illustrates how facts can be manipulated to imply a conclusion that is really a lie.
The Soviet media asked their leaders: “When President Nixon visited Moscow, he and Secretary Khrushchev ran a race around the Kremlin. Nixon came in first. How should our media report on that?”
The leaders answered, “The report should be as follows: ‘In the international running competition the General Secretary of the Communist Party took the honorable second place. Mister Nixon came in next to last.’” The conclusion being, of course, that Nixon was the loser.
We are now in a post-fact, post-truth presidential administration, with millions of citizens who don’t seem to care. This state of affairs came about for a few reasons.
For years, conservatives have been demonizing the press. They have delegitimized facts that don’t fit their mind-set and have twisted facts to arrive at false conclusions. One clear misstatement of fact came from President Donald Trump himself in a Tweet last Nov. 27:
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Hillary Clinton received almost 2.9 million more certified popular votes than Trump. That’s a fact. Trump got 304 electoral votes. That’s a fact. (Google it). America has now had 58 presidential elections. That’s a fact. Trump’s electoral vote numbers are about 44th in that list. Which presidents got more electoral votes? Here are a few: Johnson 1964 – 486; Nixon 1972 – 520; Reagan 1980 – 489; Reagan 1984 – 525; GHW Bush 1988 – 426; Clinton 1992 – 370; Clinton 1996 – 379; Obama 2008 – 365; Obama 2012 – 332.
But Trump continues to insist he had some kind of “landslide.” That’s not a fact. He’s deliberately lying to his followers. It’s not the first time, and it doesn’t seem to bother them.
Republicans also show a remarkable degree of amnesia and ignorance around current history. A recent LVN column about the election said that when Obama was elected, “We didn’t try to undermine his presidency before he was even sworn in.” Actually, Republicans did just that. Leaders vowed to block any policy Obama proposed, even if the original idea had been the Republicans’. Republicans kept the “birther” nonsense alive, refusing to condemn those who questioned the president’s citizenship. Undermining Obama’s legitimacy as president was the name of the game.
Delegitimizing facts and spreading fake news became the norm. Fake news encouraged fake ideas, which had real consequences.
One popular fake story, spread by Sean Hannity, was that in 1991, Trump generously sent his shuttle planes to fly 200 Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., home to Miami. The one fact here is that Trump Shuttle planes did take the Marines home. However, this was not a spontaneous gesture by Trump. Trump didn’t even own the airline at the time. It had been seized by the banks for non-payment of debts. The new owners had a military contract to fly troops. But this story persuaded some voters that Trump was a great guy and swayed their votes.
Another fake story that could have had tragic consequences was the story that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a restaurant in Washington D.C. A Hillary hater took a rifle to the restaurant to stop what he thought was happening. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but not because this man checked his facts first.
If you wonder where many of these fake stories come from, check out Veles, Macedonia. There, an 18-year-old named “Dimitri” makes a great living creating fake stories and posting them on Facebook. He gets a penny-per-click and made at least $60,000 in six months in a town where the average annual earnings are $4,800. His best audience? “Nothing can beat Trump’s supporters when it comes to social media engagement. So that’s why we stick with Trump.” (NBC News, Dec. 9, 2016)
Conservatives have worked hard to make their followers suspicious of facts. I don’t know if this fear of facts can be fixed, but if not, we are in big trouble.
A truly free press is the foundation of a thriving democracy. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” We mustn’t let the anti-freedom, anti-fact group win. Stay vigilant.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.