It’s Day 4 of the Trump administration (or is it Day 1?). For press secretary Sean Spicer, it’s Day 3 of being the subject of a viral meme about the nature of reality.
Spicer’s first official press conference was held three days after President Trump told an audience at CIA headquarters that he believed 1.5 million people had attended his inauguration -- which news outlets quickly pointed out was false -- and suggested that the media had invented a feud between the president and the intelligence community. (Trump had likened them to Nazis in a tweet last week.)
Saturday evening, Spicer held a contentious briefing at which he took no questions and slammed the press for its reporting on the inauguration. And on Sunday morning, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager and now the Counselor to the President, told a flabbergasted Chuck Todd that Spicer’s false claims about the size of the crowd and the number of people who rode Washington, D.C.’s Metro on Friday were simply “alternative facts.”
Twitter had a lot of fun with this, as Twitter does.
"I am a NIgerian prince in need of a small loan. My enormous assets are frozen. Will email you soon. Period." pic.twitter.com/d0kOlmfy1w
— Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) January 22, 2017
Hillary is president right now. I choose to believe this. #alternativefacts
— Full Frontal (@FullFrontalSamB) January 22, 2017
��A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality. https://t.co/gCKRZZm23c
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 22, 2017
But for researchers who study how people process news and how public figures -- especially presidents -- communicate, the last few days have been a gold mine.
“Presidents do deceive, and their press secretaries are part of that process,” said
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “But I can’t recall an instance in which a press secretary has made a blatantly false statement about something as trivial as the number of people at an inauguration. Deceiving about something inconsequential seems anomalous.”
In the early days of any administration, “the press is looking very, very closely to try to learn anything that can be learned,” Jamieson said. “It tends to feature whatever it’s got. The president has the ability to drive the press’s focus to things that matter, and he didn’t.”
Monday’s press conference lasted almost an hour, and the topics that came up were wide-ranging: Spicer fielded questions on the Dakota Access Pipeline and the massive Women’s Marches around the country, the Trump administration’s international trade policy and the logistics of the border wall. But he was also peppered with questions about Saturday’s press conference, about Trump’s statements at the CIA and those pesky inaugural numbers.
Spicer opened on a decidedly more conciliatory tone, with a joke about the inauguration crowd that drew scattered laughs. But the press secretary stuck to his statement from Saturday’s briefing: that the inaugural crowd was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” (On Monday, he said that by “audience,” he meant everyone who watched the inauguration in person, livestreamed it on computers and mobile devices, or watched it on TV.)
The art of the second-day (or third-day) spin is something Spicer, a longtime spokesman for the RNC, knows well, and Kellyanne Conway is famous for it. But rhetoric this election cycle has gone beyond spin, said Sherri Hope Culver, who runs Temple University’s Center for Media and Information Literacy.
“What really concerns me is the push toward this notion that truth is debatable, and that’s going to be a real challenge for the press,” she said. “Because when the press holds itself to its highest standard, it’s aiming for objective truth. And if, even in that aim, it gets ridiculed, where do you go from there?”
Asking questions about the source of a particular piece of news, and whether they can trust it, doesn’t come naturally to most people, Culver said. And people tend to interpret the news through the lens of their own experiences. Journalists at mainstream outlets reacted to Spicer’s Saturday briefing with almost universal outrage. In the conservative sphere, viewers were cheering Spicer on for sticking it to the “dishonest” media.
Is it possible to cheer a WH press briefing?
Answer: YES!�� I just did!
— Boston Bobblehead (@DBloom451) January 22, 2017
— Deplorable?Not! ���� (@stanelling) January 23, 2017
Successful administrations, Jamieson said, must learn quickly how to communicate effectively -- how to avoid distractions like a days-long discussion on how many people attended your inauguration. At the end of the day, the average viewer doesn’t necessarily care about the size of the inaugural crowd, she said.
“The average viewer cares about whether or not he’s going to fix the economy for them, or if there are going to be more jobs, or if healthcare is going to be more accessible and more affordable,” she said. “Communicating effectively to the public increases the likelihood that your agenda is understood and you get credit for your accomplishments. And when you distract the press and public with other things, you don't get the credit you could have gotten."