By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Bill Clinton: “It depends on what the meaning of is, is.” John Kerry: “I was for the war in Iraq before I was against it.” We have heard the lines many times. No doubt, Clinton and Kerry would love to be able to turn back the clock and erase them from the history books. No one wants to be remembered as someone who fudged the truth for personal political gain.
But have you noticed? Clinton and Kerry don’t make an effort to clean up the record by explaining what they meant. Why not? My guess is that they grasp the wisdom of the maxim about trying to unring the bell, understanding how mealy-mouthed they will sound if they try to defend themselves.
Kellyanne Conway’s remarks about “alternative facts” are another example. I suspect that she would not use this term again if she had it to do over again, considering how mercilessly she has been mocked by the mainstream media and the late-night comedians. Like Clinton and Kerry, Conway seems content to let the matter pass; to have concluded that she can’t unring this bell either.
But that might not be the case. This record should be set straight because it is not just Democrat Party hatchet men who are ridiculing Conway. Consider a recent editorial by Fr. Matthew Malone, SJ, in the Jesuits’ America magazine.
Malone makes a sincere attempt in his columns in America to be honest and objective. Nevertheless, he jumped on the bandwagon against Conway. In the February 6 issue of America he writes, “In our contemporary politics, facts are not stubborn but elastic things: You have your facts, I have my ‘alternative facts,’ statements not subject to painstaking empirical verification, but simple ideological confirmation.”
Egads. Malone knows better. Conway was not making a case for moral relativism. She was not saying that truth lies in the eyes of the beholder, but simply that it is possible to cherry-pick from among the available data to score political points, and that the mainstream media did precisely that when they selected aerial photos of the crowd gathered in front of the podium when Trump made his inaugural speech, and then placed them side by side with similar photos taken in 2008 when Barack Obama made his inaugural address.
It is true: In the comparison, the photo of Obama’s inaugural address shows an unbroken carpet of humanity reaching far into the distance, and that the photo of Trump’s address shows large areas of white in front of the podium where there are no spectators.
Conway was defending Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer when he pointed out that these juxtaposed images are misleading. Intentionally or not, Fr. Malone is supporting NBC News commentator Chuck Todd’s reprimand to Conway on Meet the Press:
“Wait a minute. Alternative facts? Alternative facts?…Alternative facts are not facts; they’re falsehoods.” To which Conway replied, “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood. It is not. Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts’.”
I can’t speak for Conway, but it seems to me clear that she was not saying that the picture showing the empty spaces in front of Trump while he was speaking was inaccurate. She would agree with Todd that “facts are facts.” The photo is real.
What Conway meant was that this photo is just one snippet in time; that there is more to the story, that other angles need to be considered. And that the media who chose to focus on these two photos were going out of their way to demean Trump’s inaugural; and that Sean Spicer had every right to call them out on their partisanship.
What are the alternative facts that should be considered when looking at these two photos? It is the perennial question of comparing apples and oranges. First and foremost, were they taken when the crowds were at their peak for both Trump and Obama? It is irrelevant if they were taken at the same time of day. (Both photos were taken between 11 and 11:30 a.m.) Perhaps the Trump crowd arrived later.
Also, should the weather on the day of both speeches be taken into account — if we are using the size of the crowd to gauge enthusiasm for Trump and Obama, which the media plainly were seeking to do by comparing the two photos? And should the fact that the population of Washington, D.C., is overwhelmingly Democratic and minority, and that they came out to experience a unique moment in our history in 2008, one very special to them, when they attended Obama’s address? Beyond that, the white patches that showed up in the photo of Trump’s address were mats that had been put in place to protect the grass.
But maybe we should not bring up the mats. There are some who insist that the mats protecting the grass were also in place during the Obama address. Once the mats were in place, the crowds stood on them — at both inaugurals.
Fair enough. That may be the case. But it may be irrelevant. Take a look at Fr. Malone’s article. It is on page 3 of the February 6 issue of America, which is available online. Then turn the page. You will find a two-page photo of Trump at the podium, taken from behind. It was obviously taken at a different time than the photo juxtaposed by the media against the photo of Obama’s 2008 inaugural speech. Guess what? There are no white gaps, no sign of any mats, just a mass of humanity stretching out into the distance in front of Trump’s podium.
Too bad Kellyanne Conway didn’t have this photo available on the day she was interviewed on Meet the Press. Which photo is the truth? Which one is an alternative fact? Which one is fake news? Which one is a cheap shot?
The bottom line: If the media had decided to compare this photo from America side by side with the photo of Obama’s inaugural speech, there would have been no story about comparative crowd size; Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer would have had nothing to take issue with, no alternative facts to present in pursuit of the truth.