Juan Williams: The dangerous erosion of facts

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Have you heard the news?

Donald Trump won the national popular vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Fifty-two percent of Republicans say it’s a fact, according to one poll. Forty percent of Trump voters told another poll the same thing.

Reality check: The final vote count showed Hillary Clinton won almost 3 million more votes than Trump.

This is not a matter of opinion, it is statement of fact: knowable, hard, empirical truth. 

{mosads}Yet about half of Trump voters don’t buy it. 


And there are more jaw-dropping results in polls of GOP voters. 

Among the 52 percent who give Trump the popular vote are 37 percent of college-educated Republicans, according to a Qualtrics poll released last week. 

Sixty-seven percent of Trump voters in a Public Policy Polling survey released earlier this month also believe that unemployment increased during President Obama’s eight years in office. 

In reality, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate when Obama took office in January 2009 was 7.8 percent. In November 2016, it had sunk to 4.6 percent. 

By the way, 39 percent of Trump voters also believe the stock market went down under Obama. In fact, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 8,000 when Obama took office in January 2009. Late last week it closed at over 19,900 — on its way to possibly surpassing the 20,000 mark before the end of the year. 

Let’s agree on one fact: Donald Trump upended the political world with his win.

But that incredible upset left an incredible hangover. The facts of political life are now subject to partisan interpretation.

Despite an unprecedented wealth of news gushing from hundreds of cable networks, radio stations, newspapers, Facebook feeds and websites, Americans increasingly live in separate realities when it comes to the facts of our common political lives.

I am not talking about the easy outrage over the outright lies told by gutter-dwelling fake news websites.

This is not about a liberal or conservative tilt to news presentations. 

The core threat to democracy is not that news sites are lying or telling people what to think. The danger is that they are presenting a narrow slate of what to think about.

That means that Trump supporters hear more about charges of voter fraud than Clinton’s victory in the popular vote — and that leads them to think such fraud must be real, giving them an excuse to ignore the factual vote count.

Similarly, they hear less about President Obama’s success in pulling the U.S. out of a deep recession than they hear speculation about the number of people who stopped searching for jobs.

There is no way to overstate that this is a challenge to democracy — a system that is, after all, based on the consent of voters who are fully informed.

Scottie Nell Hughes, the conservative CNN commentator and staunch Trump supporter, recently told radio host Diane Rehm: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

Hughes continued: “And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts…. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth,” Hughes explained. 

The distressing impact of a world free of facts is clearly on Obama’s mind in his final weeks in office. He recently tied the trouble American voters have agreeing on facts to the impact of Russian efforts to influence the presidential race.

“Our political dialogue is such that everybody’s under suspicion, everybody’s corrupt, everybody’s doing things for partisan reasons…,” Obama told reporters last week. He said “talk radio” style news is breaking apart the sense of common destiny among Americans and opening the door to external interference.

“If we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we better think about how to make sure that our political process, our political dialogue, is stronger than it’s been,” Obama concluded. 

Americans, both conservative and liberal, seem to agree with the president that something is haywire when the news media fail to give everyone a common set of facts as the basis for vigorous, partisan debate.

Even before the election, a Gallup September poll found the share of Americans with a “great deal” or “fair amount” of faith in the mass media has hit rock bottom, at just 32 percent — a drop of 15 points since 2007.

The crisis is prompting change.

Facebook, now the nation’s top news source, recently announced steps to label and combat what it considers to be “fake news.” They will have a consortium of independent fact-checking journalists, including people from the Associated Press and FactCheck.org, review articles posted on their social media platform. 

Facebook can check for fake stories and false information. But what happens when fact-challenged statements come from politicians and especially the President-elect?

And what happens when Trump is being fed fact-free conspiracy theories by his advisers?  

Consider the possibility that Trump acts on “facts” as he hears them from his National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn (ret.). The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency is infamous for disseminating so-called “Flynn Facts,” or dubious assertions.

Some “Flynn Facts” became public on Twitter, including a few with inaccuracies, some taken from fake news sites, and others containing what critics judged to be anti-Muslim sentiments. 

A Fox News poll released last week found 25 percent of voters expect Trump to be an “above average” president. Only 11 percent say he’ll be one of the “greatest.” Thirty-one percent of voters say he’ll be “one of the worst.” 

In a fact-free world, how does the press report on President Trump? Who will believe them anyway?

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

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