Grumpy old man: True or false?

A lot of logical-sounding news is false, and a lot of oddball news is true. Who can help us make sense of it? Do we even care?

By
February 10, 2017 13:23
Sean Spicer

White House spokesman Sean Spicer and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway – who has recently defended what she referred to as ‘alternative facts’ – wait for US President Donald Trump to arrive to board Air Force One for travel to Philadelphia from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, last month. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Read the following and decide which of these items are true and which are not.

1. An academic study has shown that more than 800,000 non-citizens cast votes for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election.

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2. Two grandchildren of US president John Tyler, born in 1790, are still alive.

3. A US manufacturer and exporter of travel bags, knapsacks and similar items is now including the following statement at the bottom of its French-language labels for recommended care: “Nous sommes desoles que notre president soit un idiot. Nous n’avons pas vote pour lui.” In English: “We're sorry our president is an idiot. We didn’t vote for him.”

4. People in smog-clogged Beijing are buying cans of fresh air with inhalation masks they can press against their lower face.

5. President Donald Trump ordered the White House phone line for citizens’ comments shut down once he was inaugurated.

6. A new species of moth is being called Neopalpa donaldtrumpi.

IT’S NOT so easy to determine what’s true and what’s not when a senior adviser to a president talks about “alternative facts” and then brings up during a network interview a massacre by Islamists that wasn’t.

You could chalk it up to a lack of professionalism. But according to what conservative radio talk show host Charles Sykes wrote in a February 4 New York Times op-ed piece headlined “Why Nobody Cares the President Is Lying,” the culprit is just as much a cohort that has been “conditioned” to disbelieve reporting from mainstream news sources.

“…I played a role in that conditioning by hammering the mainstream media for its bias and double standards,” Sykes wrote, “but the price turned out to be far higher than I imagined. The cumulative effect of the attacks was to delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information. We thought we were creating a savvier, more skeptical audience. Instead, we opened the door for President Trump, who found an audience that could be easily misled.”

It’s kind of like a mad scientist who comes to the realization that he’s created a monster – call it Frankenfact – and the monster is totally out of control.

AND NOW, the answers:

1. False. On January 26, The Washington Times reported: “Hillary Clinton garnered more than 800,000 votes from noncitizens on November 8, an approximation far short of President Trump’s estimate of up to five million illegal voters but supportive of his charges of fraud…. Based on national polling by a consortium of universities, a report by [political scientist Jesse Richman of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia] said 6.4% of the estimated 20 million adult noncitizens in the US voted in November. He extrapolated that that percentage would have added 834,381 net votes for Mrs. Clinton, who received about 2.8 million more votes than Mr. Trump.”

When contacted, Richman told me that the very next day, he wrote to “several editors” at the Times. “…I need to say that I think the… article is deceptive,” he told them. “It makes it sound like I have done a study concerning the 2016 election. I have not. What extrapolation I did to the 2016 election was purely and explicitly and exclusively for the purpose of pointing out that my 2014 study of the 2008 election did not provide evidence of voter fraud at the level some Trump administration people were claiming it did… I do not stand behind that extrapolation if used for ANY other purpose.”

The Times website is somewhat poorly organized and it’s unclear whether the paper published Richman’s complaint. When this column went to press, Richman himself didn’t know. What’s more, the report remained uncorrected – although the headline, “Trump argument bolstered: Clinton received 800,000 votes from non-citizens, study finds,” had been tweaked to say “Clinton could have received….”

2. True. John Tyler fathered 15 children with two wives. His 13th child, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, was born in 1853, when the elder Tyler was 63. Two of the children Lyon had with his second wife entered the world in the 1920s. One of them, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, who was born when Lyon was 75, told New York magazine in 2012: “I am sometimes called the great-grandson – we have to correct that.”

3. False (to a degree). Bags by the Washington State-based Tom Bihn company actually had such labels, but this was noticed in 2004 when George W. Bush was president. The popular and authoritative myth-busting Snopes website says company president Tom Bihn didn’t know which of his 10 employees had snuck those lines in and insisted that they did not refer to Bush. He added, however: “We haven't looked really hard to find out who did it because it's good for us. When we find them, we'll give them a raise.”

4. True. A Canadian company, Vitality Air, is selling air freshener-type canisters that contain three or eight liters of compressed air gathered from the pristine Banff/Lake Louise area of the country’s Rocky Mountains. Its website features the question: “Remember the day when people laughed off bottled water?”

5. False. The phone-in line was deactivated during the last week or so of the Obama presidency. As of press time, it had yet to be reactivated.

6. True. Publishing his findings in the peer-reviewed journal ZooKeys, the entomologist who made the discovery wrote: “The specific epithet is selected because of the resemblance of the scales on the frons (head) of the moth to Mr. Trump’s hairstyle.”

WE USED TO call the stuff you heard in the White House press briefing room “spin.” Now it’s simply flat-out lies and quasi-truths for reporters to check – and thus waste critical time – and for news consumers who are, as Charles Sykes put it, “easily misled” to inhale, exactly the way people in Beijing breathe in lousy air.

Alternative facts? Alternative universes – and very strange times indeed.


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