One of George Carlin’s best bits was about euphemisms and how they obscure meaning. A truly stunning example of this took place on NBC over the weekend when prominent Donald Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway went on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.
The two were discussing a speech given by the new press secretary, Sean Spicer, in which he excoriated the press for minimizing the attendance figures at Trump’s inauguration. Photographic evidence makes painfully clear that turnout for Trump’s inauguration was much lower than it was in 2009 for Barack Obama’s. But this flies in the face of the Trump team’s claims to have a mandate and widespread support of the American people.
So Spicer went out to claim the exact opposite: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” Spicer made this claim within moments of acknowledging that crowd size was impossible to judge.
Various media outlets were quick to point out the many problems with Spicer’s speech. Conway appeared on Meet the Press to defend him. She challenged Chuck Todd on his characterization of Spicer’s remarks: “You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
Immediately, “alternative facts” became a meme and a hashtag. But lost in all the talk of that Orwellian phrase was Chuck Todd’s own tortured, awkward questioning. He never referred to Spicer’s comments as a lie – instead, he asked, “Why put [Spicer] out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood?”
Equally telling are the myriad headlines on the debacle. Politico accused Spicer of telling “untruths.” The Washington Post called them “blatantly false claims.” All this comes shortly after the editor of the Wall Street Journal announced he didn’t like using the word “lie” to describe a false statement: “‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false,” he said. “It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” Perish the thought.
All this euphemistic language is helping to obscure the reality of what really happened. If you strip the euphemisms away, Conway and Todd both agree that Spicer lied. An “alternative fact” and a “provable falsehood” are both lies, so the conversation should have been Todd asking, “Why did Sean Spicer lie?” and Conway answering, “He lied.”
However much Conway is made fun of, she got away with introducing a new and dangerous concept to American political discourse. The phrase “alternative facts” almost certainly did not come to her in the moment. Someone in team Trump came up with it and Conway delivered it. As the shock of it wears off, alternative facts will become an increasingly useful rhetorical trick to gaslight Trump supporters into believing Trump over credible news outlets whenever the two are at odds.