‘Alternative Facts’ and the Media Crisis of Legitimacy

President Donald Trump and his legion of lackeys rolled the dice on the theory that left and right now live in totally different realities: that we no longer agree on what constitutes a legitimate source of information, that motives and intentions now count for more than diligence in ‘getting the facts right,’ and that a forceful Republican candidate can bypass the mainstream media altogether as long as he steadfastly refuses to cater to their standards. To a large extent, this is true, and is one of the major truths Trump accurately perceived that caught Washington by surprise. Rather than seeing polarization as a problem to be overcome, Trump sees it it as an opportunity to be embraced. There have been occasions in which Trump has been shown a tape of him saying something, after which he denies having said it. But rather than abandoning him over such a blatant act of charlatanism, his supporters love it: he is their liar, engaged in combat against the other liars — and his lies drive those other liars up the wall. He lies for them, and against Obama, the Clintons, and progressives — and that perceived loyalty means more than any factual account: motive trumps all.

Not surprisingly, a campaign based on this attitude became a magnet for grifters, media-whores, trolls, has-beens, and malcontents — an army of the alienated: everyone from Sarah Palin to Martin Shkreli to Milo Yiannopoulos — excuse me: MILO — to Richard Spencer to 4chan to Alex Jones eagerly hopped on the Trump Train, perceiving that this opportunity to help usher in a world where everyone has their own — liar-for-hire Kellyanne Conway’s words, not mine — ‘alternative facts‘ — would be a boon to them. An environment like this is something of a free-for-all, and every niche figure can be included and validated in it. There is no umpire, no referee — every man and woman can be their own final arbiter of what counts as true.


Obviously, none of this started with President Trump. In some ways it is merely the ‘postmodern’ condition at work. And it is certainly not an exclusively right-wing problem: the mainstream media deserves blame for its role in exacerbating the problem. At times — not always, but at times — reporters’ widespread enthusiasm for the Obama personality cult led them in this direction themselves. In a perfectly just world, this might have increased the right’s enthusiasm for an honest and balanced press, which they once pretended was their goal during the Clinton and Bush years. But instead they came to view it as an opening to break away from the mainstream press entirely: to drum up every example of bias, real or imagined, as proof-positive that the mainstream press as it exists is irredeemable and must be perceived as an enemy. The calling card of right-wing new-media sites like Breitbart, the Blaze, and the Daily Caller is that they are upfront about their bias, unlike the mainstream press, which pretends to be neutral but really tilts toward the left — the broader implication being that reporting which is basically neutral is neither possible nor desirable. Since there is no general consensus for or against any source of information that can’t be painted as merely the nay-saying of another side, they have largely accomplished their mission: on the right, it is commonplace to perceive Breitbart as the heads to the New York Times’ tails.

It is imperative to note that there has always been this tendency in politics, and always will be; there is no lost golden age in which truth and reason ruled and partisans cooperated and got along simply civilly. But it can be a minor problem — easily contained, widely recognized for its dangers — or it can be an alarming problem — spinning out of control, widely embraced. Traditionally, we have kept watch for demagogues who would try to exploit these tendencies for their own gain at the expense of the nation as a whole. We are not in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ era, as some pundits have rushed to declare. Most people want facts — but if they do not trust any source of information to report or interpret them neutrally or fairly, then they figure they might as well consume news from sources which speak to their values instead. What is most alarming of all is that nobody has a road map back to a place where we can agree on the fundamentals: the problem is not destined to resolve itself, and may simply grow worse and worse.