“Presidential facts” are a new fact of life

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

This bit of wisdom has been attributed to Daniel Moynihan, a college professor turned U.S. senator. But it may now be all wrong.

Defending statements made by President-elect Trump, a campaign loyalist said the  American people “understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

Does that mean Americans should not take everything Trump says as fact, but rather as casual chat? If so, people could find themselves getting upset over nothing.

When asked about Trump spreading misinformation, Kellyanne Conway, his final campaign manager, replied, “He’s the president-elect, so that’s presidential behavior.”  If Trump says, believes and acts on false information, it becomes fact or at least “presidential” fact.

By this interpretation, a president gains power over truth and error simply by virtue of winning an election.  Perhaps that reflects the current lack of confidence among many people about what constitutes fact or even if facts exist.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palen persistently attacks the “lame-stream media,” her attempt to blame  principal print and electronic news sources, the mainstream media, for liberal bias in their reporting.  But the mainstream media surely includes Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, neither of which could be called liberal.

Fox has reported as fact matters that suit its right-wing slant, but which are not supported by proof.  But, to be fair, the New York Times and the Washington Post let their coverage be shaded by their editorial bias.  Their facts may be supported, but their tone tilts.

The media is supposed to report objectively and to provide facts needed by readers and viewers to understand and evaluate what their leaders are asserting.  Often, efforts at objectivity have amounted  to simply providing comments from both sides of an issue and giving them equal weight.

Whether assertions are correct are dealt with “after the fact.”  So-called fact-checkers on some newspapers provide evidence, pro or con, about political statements, but after the statements have been reported.  That’s useful, but inadequate.

Palen and others have succeeded in causing some people to dispute any fact that is offered by the media.  Having lost faith in the news, they may believe there is probably enough evidence either way on most issues.

Take the claim  by Trump and the suggestion by Maine Gov. LePage that this year’s elections were subject to massive fraud.  Without being able to show any cases of fraud, let alone massive numbers, such assertions do not stand up.  But many of their supporters may accept them as fact.

Trump might simply regard such a claim as mere campaign talk, not meant to be taken seriously.  We readily accept loose talk by candidates, but presidents have to be more careful, because so much rides on their statements as the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.

The media must step up to doing a better job of prompt reporting of facts, especially in their historical context.  Blogs, not subject to editorial review, won’t suffice. And the media needs to be even more mindful of the need to screen out as much bias in reporting as possible.

Trump can get his facts right and act on them.  Recently, the media, eager too show him up, at first missed his having done that, because he had upset established policy.

He had taken a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan, which is claimed  by China but remains independent.  He pointed out that the U.S. does a lot of business with Taiwan, so it made sense for him to accept the call.

The media went out of its way to stress that American leaders do not talk with Taiwanese leaders because it would anger China.  But didn’t Trump promise change?  Might this be an example of it?  The media gradually began to catch on.

The Chinese have taken over a big swath of the high seas by building artificial islands.  They seem unconcerned by apparently tepid U.S. opposition.  The fact of that counterbalancing issue might have been given prominence equal to coverage of the State Department’s elitist displeasure with Trump’s phone manners.

Facts are real.  No president should be allowed to manufacture them.  It’s up to people to demand evidence and more attention to the context of the news and the media to provide it promptly.


Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.