In a series of twits, Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, and a former executive of ExxonMobil, did the unthinkable. She explained why the leaked news that Trump would name Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State wasn’t so terrible.
The knives had already come out to slice and dice the choice, with superficial assumptions, the sort of routine quasi-informative arguments that are deeply persuasive to people who prefer not to know too much, think too hard, and appreciate any reason to persist in hating whomever they hate.
Maloney’s twits were dangerous, heresy. They suggested that Trump’s choice may not be a poor one at all, that Tillerson might be a reasonable pick. It wasn’t so much that her twits were a conclusive vindication of the choice, but that they forced one to think beyond seeking excuses to hate everything Trump is doing. If you believe with certainty that Trump is “literally Hitler,” then the last thing you want to hear is that he may not be as terrible, or at least that every decision he makes, everything he does, isn’t absolutely horrifying.
No one can force anyone to think. No one can force anyone to believe what they don’t want to believe. And the same elites who were so certain that Trump could never be elected have chosen not to believe Trump.
Bizarrely, they believe so strongly that they are willing to accept at face value the word of the CIA, the nice folks who brought you torture and extraordinary rendition, not to mention the certainty of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, without the slightest cringe of cognitive dissonance when it informed America that the Russians hacked the election in Trump’s favor. Bad for Trump? It must be true. Even if it’s the CIA.
Is the CIA wrong? Beats me. Russians were drowning in ineffectiveness up until recently, when suddenly they became evil computer geniuses controlling America’s politics. Even if it happened, did it change the election outcome? Correlation does not prove causation, unless you really, really want to believe it did.
What explains the willingness, if not the desire, to embrace every narrative that proves how evil the new president is? Certainly the politics of the media elites provides the foundation upon which public narratives are constructed. We only know the news they tell us, and their narrative is the one upon which our formative understanding is built. And the media has decided that Trump, unlike any president-elect before him, and unlike any government official ever, is a presumptive liar.
He is not just indifferent to facts; he can be hostile to any effort to assert them. On Tuesday, Chuck Jones, a union boss at Carrier Corporation,told The Washington Post that Mr. Trump was wrong when he claimed to have saved 1,100 of the company’s jobs from moving to Mexico — the real number will be closer to 730. Rather than admit error, the president-elect instead attacked Mr. Jones, a private citizen, on Twitter, saying he had done a “terrible job representing workers.”
In other words, Mr. Trump’s is a different kind of lying, though it has been coming for some time.
More curious than doubting Trump’s claim is the unqualified acceptance of a union boss’ word as “truth.” Since when did union bosses become paragons of truth? Since Trump, apparently.
And so there followed a significant shift in the media’s presumption of regularity. Anything Trump says is a presumptive lie. When ProPublica announced the new rule of journalism, Ed Yong, science editor at the Atlantic, twitted “exactly.“
No one is forced to believe anything any president says, but if the media wants to write a story that Trump’s statement is a “crazy claim,” which it may very well be, it used to be the responsibility of journalists to debunk the claim. Of course, nobody is forced to believe anything the media says either, but then, that’s where news comes from. We have an expectation that the Fourth Estate can be trusted, will be the loyal opposition to demagoguery, will counter manipulation of our understanding with facts and sound, informed opinion.
ProPublica has decided that the “burden of proof can’t be on the media.” Why not? It’s too exhausting. This president has, according to the media, no regard for truth.
Mr. Trump has changed this game. He has exploited, perhaps better than any presidential candidate before him, the human impulse to be swayed more by story than by fact. As one of his surrogates said recently, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts.”
That we’re in a post-factual society, where belief in a narrative is reality and facts are whatever we feel they are, isn’t just a Trump issue. Indeed, Trump may be the consequence rather than the cause. Remember all the credible folks repeating the campus rape stats of one in five co-eds being sexually assaulted, from the president to every mainstream media outlet around? Trump wasn’t yet a twinkle in the electorate’s eye, but the false narrative became fact to those who chose to believe.
This isn’t to suggest that Trump is to be believed. No president, or any government official down to dog catcher, should be “believed” without scrutiny, even though journalists do so happily because it makes their job much easier. And if he’s caught in a lie, then out him. Out him hard, and call him a lying liar if that’s what he is. Trump isn’t above reproach by any stretch of the imagination.
But then, neither is the media. Your manipulation of definitions (like “hate crimes”), abuse of rhetorical devices (like starting every story with the sad anecdote to indulge the logical fallacy of inductive reasoning, not to mention the appeal to authority by calling every source an “expert”), haven’t gone unnoticed. No collective group is less qualified to make substantive sense of information; you’re writers, nothing more.
Most of you have no specialized knowledge, though you believe you do. If you write tripe enough, you believe your own press releases. If you weren’t standing atop Walter Cronkite’s soapbox, you would have no more earned credibility than any other 23-year-old humanities major. And because you believe you know best, you’re the most truthy voice in all the truthiness, you get to absolve yourself of the burden of proof?