IN a 1921 essay marking the centenary of the British newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, CP Scott, the newspaper’s editor, wrote this very famous sentence: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”.
It is therefore heartening that the media has held the Trump administration accountable for comments about the size of the crowd at Mr Trump’s inauguration last week versus Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.
This all started with Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, telling the media the following, in response to reports that attendance at Trump’s attendance was significantly down on Obama’s: “No one had numbers because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out”.
But he then added that the data might, after all, be available, because this was the “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe. These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm for the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
There is clearly a blurred line here. Mr Spicer’s latter comment refers to a 2009/2017 comparison between the number of people on the National Mall and those who watched on TV and by live streaming etc.
As far as I can tell from Google news searches, the numbers are not out yet that provide a global comparison of TV and internet audiences for the two inaugurations. It could be, of course, that Mr Spicer has access to much better data than my highly unscientific and random 20-minute news search. But he hasn’t produced the data.
At least in the case of US TV networks, Neilsen reports that more people watched Mr Obama’s swearing-in than Mr Trump’s.
And, anyway, the news items to which Mr Spicer took objection only sought to compare the crowds on the National Mall during the two ceremonies.
Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to President Trump, then went on to say that Mr Spicer had offered “alternative facts” about the size of the two crowds.
The phrase “alternative facts” doesn’t make sense in this context. There are only ever one set of facts that can be right about any one event.
Ms Conway also appeared to disagree with both the media and Mr Spicer when she added: “I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or another. There’s no way to quantify crowd numbers.”
The president then entered the debate by saying: “I made a speech. I looked out. The field was – it looked like a million, a million and a half people”. He added that media estimates that the crowd was 250,000 were a “lie”.
But as the UK’s’ Independent newspaper reports: “All photographs and video from the event show that the crowd did not extend as far as the Washington Monument, and there were in fact large areas reserved for attendees which remained empty throughout the day.”
And if you again conduct a Google search this morning you will find photographs comparing the 2009 and 2017 inaugurations that clearly show that last week’s attendance was lower. This is backed up by data on the number of people using public transport ahead of these two ceremonies.
It is possible that all the photos and YouTube videos of the event have been doctored and that all the data pointing to a lower crowd in 2017 is wrong.
This seems highly unlikely. What seems more likely is that the White House has got its facts wrong. This is a very worrying start, given all the questions surrounding the accuracy of some President Trump’s campaign statements.
Holding Politicians to Account
President Trump needs to come out fighting in the right kind of way from this shaky start. He has to, for example, provide the facts around which this statement, from his inauguration speech, was built: For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidised the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.
We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.
He then needs to be prepared to be challenged on these facts – and next on the hard-evidence outcomes of policy changes aimed at realising this vision. Mr Trump is right that something is very wrong. The question is whether or not his solutions will end up doing more harm than good.
All politicians need to be held to account in this way because, as CP Scott said, facts are sacred – and Mr Trump can obviously be no exception to this rule. This “fact checking” is the job of the media, of other politicians, of economists and analysts etc., and the media has made a good start over the size of his inauguration crowd.
On Wednesday, I will provide more factual detail about what’s wrong with the US economy. I will next assess whether Mr Trump’s policy approach, as it stands today, is likely to succeed or fail.