During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, I regularly sat in UMaine Orono dorm rooms with friends watching TV news reports of the US led coalition invasion of Iraq.
We watched, incredulous, as Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf claimed US forces had been routed and were fleeing in fear, as United States tanks advanced upon him in the background of the shot.
It was a hilarious, surreal moment, one I never dreamed would be mirrored in the United States, but this has been an unusual few months.
On Saturday night, an obviously flustered Sean Spicer, fellow Rhode Islander turned President Donald Trump administration spokesman, held a press conference to attack media in general for accurately reporting the meager inauguration turnout Friday.
Spicer made obviously and demonstrably false assertions – he lied – and the falsehoods were dutifully noted by several news outlets, including NPR, but the whopper was his claim about the size of the crowd attending the inauguration, “This was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” Spicer said.
It was a small, ridiculous thing to lie about, and NBC’s Chuck Todd tried in vain to get Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway to answer why the administration chose to lie about it during Meet the Press.
Conway was not forthcoming. But the strategy behind the opening lie and vicious attack on fact checkers was not difficult to discern: a naked attempt to sow confusion about reputable media, and about whether finding truth is even possible.
A former political appointee to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy outlined the likely calculation behind the approach, which has been making the rounds on social media:
“If you are puzzled by the bizzare “press conference put on by the White House press secretary this evening (angrily claiming that Trump’s inauguration had the largest audience in history, accusing them of faking photos and lying about attendance), let me help explain it. This spectacle served three purposes:
1. Establishing a norm with the press: They will be told things that are obviously wrong and they will have no opportunity to ask questions. That way, they will be grateful if they get anything more at any press conference. This is the PR equivalent of “negging,” the odious pick-up practice of a particular kind of person (e.g., Donald Trump)
2. Increasing the separation between Trump’s base (1/3 of the population) from everybody else (the remaining 2/3). By being told something that is obviously wrong – that there is no evidence for and all evidence against, that anybody with eyes can see is wrong – they are forced to pick whether they are going to believe Trump or their lying eyes. The gamble here – likely to pay off – is that they will believe Trump. This means that they will regard media outlets that report the truth as “fake news” (because otherwise they’d be forced to confront their cognitive dissonance.)
3. Creating a sense of uncertainty about whether facts are knowable, among a certain chunk of the population (which is taking a page from the Kremlin, for whom this is their preferred disinformation tactic.) A third of the population will say, “Clearly the White House is lying,” a third will say, “If Trump says it, it must be true,” and the remaining third will say, “Gosh, I guess this is unknowable.” The idea isn’t to convince these people of untrue things, it’s to fatigue them, so that they will stay out of the political process entirely, regarding the truth as just too difficult to determine.
This is laying important groundwork for the months ahead. If Trump’s White House is willing to lie about something as obviously, unquestionably fake as this, just imagine what else they’ll lie about. In particular, things that the public cannot possibly verify the truth of. It’s gonna get real bad.”
Saeed al-Sahhaf was a shameless liar, and won the nickname Baghdad Bob as a result. It’s comically cold comfort, but Baghdad Bob held his composure in a war zone lying for Saddam Hussein much better than Spicer did safe indoors as he spun lies for President Trump.
Is Sean Spicer Trump’s Baghdad Bob? No. That comparison is insulting.
Insulting to Baghdad Bob.
This is a test