Preserving the Primacy of Fact and Reason



The following item appeared in CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter for Monday, July 3, 2017:

Kellyanne Conway appeared on “Fox & Friends” and was asked about the tweet Trump posted depicting himself metaphorically body slamming CNN. She retreated to a familiar White House talking point: the media is too focused on Trump’s tweets, not his agenda.
Conway’s argument: “I know it’s a heck of a lot easier to cover 140 characters here or there, or what the president may be saying about the media here or there, than it is to learn the finer points of how Medicaid is funded in this country and how that would or would not change under the Senate bill, how the childcare tax credit might affect your family. They don’t cover these finer policy points.”
— Jeremy Diamond tweeted about this talking point last week when Sarah Huckabee Sanders made it from the White House podium: “In a nutshell: The media should ignore Trump tweets & set the positive narrative that Trump has refused to set himself.”
 — Also: key point from Business Insider’s Max Tani on this: “Conway claimed that at least 75% of the president’s tweets last month focused on substantive policy issues, though an Axios analysis of the president’s tweets last month found that only three of 121 he posted himself were grounded in policy-based issues.”

That last paragraph is paradoxically both all too predictable and nonetheless still quite astonishing.

One might argue that we have probably already reached the point at which it seems pointless to continue to highlight the empty double-talk that Trump and his spokespersons serve out in their persistent efforts to undermine the credibility of the reporters who are trying to hold them to some account.

But it seems much more appropriate to me that we make the effort to applaud each instance in which reporters make the extra effort to indicate exactly why such assertions are factually incorrect. Granted, most of those who have bought into the Trump narrative about the “fake media” that is determined to undermine his credibility are probably unreachable with facts. But they are not a majority of American voters, and to not highlight the degree to which this administration continues to demonstrate a complete disregard for facts is to concede that facts have no more substance than assertions.

Most faculty would not stop marking the wrong answers on an exam simply because the student has clearly failed before even half of the exam has been graded. Moreover, it seems self-evident that we should hold our public officials to the same standards of argument and evidence to which we hold our students.

Indeed, when these issue come up in our classrooms, instead of conceding that this amounts to politicizing the curriculum, we should argue that neither the management nor the shareholders of any publicly held corporation would long accept assertions so consistently and completely divorced from facts. We should pose the question of why the highest levels of government should not be held to the standards that are not just preferred but are insisted upon in just about every other significant arena of American public life.

Lastly and more broadly, it is also probably also time for us to reconsider how quickly we seem to have made the preposterous jump from de-coupling our response to political campaigning and our expectations related to governing to accepting continued campaigning as a substitute for governing.


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