Aside from the clear demarcation of "before" and "after" - of which there have been more in my lifetime then I ever thought there would be - the six days of Trumpery have certainly been everything promised, and then some. And nowhere more vividly than the glorious, contentious relationship between the new Administration and a thoroughly stupefied, if somewhat reenergized, press.
Given the lack of press conferences, or even general availabilities to the press made during the transition, it's not surprising that things got off to a sudden and rocky start. It's a reminder that people don't hold press conferences because they like to, but because being more communicative is generally helpful to getting one's point of view across. When Trump finally gave his first - fairly disastrous - press conference in New York, it was his first time taking questions in 6 months. Similarly, until the Saturday announcement in the briefing room - a room the new Administration had threatened to move out of the White House - Sean Spicer, nor any other spokesperson, had not held any kind of formal press availability as well.
Much has been made of that initial, tetchy moment when Spicer offered a blustery attack on "the media" for "false stories" related to the Inauguration... only to provide a series of factually inaccurate and false statements as rebuttal (lines about traffic on the WMATA Metro and the use of white flooring on The National Mall most prominently). It's surely a moment of infamy that already defines that bright line from old to new, and sets a tone that even Spicer has been spending the days (mere days!) since trying to undo - often to little avail.
It's clear that we have entered - suddenly and sharply - a new era where words like "fact" and "truth" will be in short supply. The lies, exaggerations, and yes "alternative facts" of the new Administration are breathtaking to behold, somehow, more gasp inducing than even the near daily (to be generous; I can't account for every single day) string of misrepresentations of the campaign. Spicer's job, after all, as a campaign spokesman is a job historically marked by telling the version of events most favorable to your guy (or Hillary Clinton). White House Press Secretary is usually thought of as a more fact-based exercise, using word choice, diplomatic phrasing, and the well timed silence to make your political points.
Still, history isn't so clean that Spicer being both pugnacious and even fact challenged isn't a first; many old hands are recalling the golden age of Ron Ziegler, press secretary to Richard Nixon, who had the thankless task of standing in front of the press field during the unfolding of Watergate, who had, even prior to the worst of it, been renowned for slippery phrasing and poor press relations. If anything, Spicer has yet to show Ziegler's elan - or for that matter, Mr. Trump's - in looking less nervous, or sounding more authoritative, in his prevarications. Even just in the room, he's upstaged by Hope Hicks, Trump's longtime spokesperson at the Trump Organization, who seems eminently more comfortable saying absolutely anything and punishing the press who dare to challenge her.
Even Hicks, though, probably isn't read for the centrality of the stage of the White House - all eyes are watching, and the press that stood by and watched Trump as a campaign (and surely should have stepped in sooner and more aggressively) is in something of a different place watching the White House - more eyes are watching, more staff is investigating, more statements are held to the kind of scrutiny there should have been all along. To say, "they're getting away with it" is to redefine what "getting away" means - Kellyanne Conway's blithe assertion of "alternative facts" to Chuck Todd didn't withstand a day of scrutiny, howls of absurdity and refusal to stand down (even Fox simply pretended the whole weekend of disastrous press relations largely Never Happened, ignoring the bulk of it). Within a day, Trump's egregiously false claim of millions of "illegal" votes was exposed as false, forcing Spicer to reduce it to "it's what he believes" rather than an objective truth, and the press pushed Trump, probably foolishly, into setting up an "investigation" into something no one actually thinks happened.
I'm not trying to minimize the fears of perfectly reasonable, and extremely thoughtful people, who see nefariousness in the Trump team's every move against the mass media. I've read Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books and I get it, too: there are moves here reminiscent of totalitarian regimes, past and present, in terms of creating "false realities," and trying to delegitimize any question or challenge from outside. But, by that measure, the Trump folks are working haphazardly, making significant mistakes, and not showing an especially effective or unified approach. There's too many stories of inside fighting and score settling, too many obvious missteps, and too much freedom and openness in our culture, for them to really succeed, even if (and I don't entirely buy it) that was their goal.
For all the hand wringing and references to George Orwell, its worth pointing out that we've never seen a "1984" like moment in a Western Democracy. That Russia under Putin has returned to an era very similar culturally to the world of the old Soviet Union is less a lesson for us as it is a reminder of history: old habits die hard, especially in the hands of an ex-KGB officer turned "President" whose life experience favors mass media controlled and heavily edited by The State. As Americans, we know less than nothing about this; it is outside of every aspect of our culture, our way of life, indeed, in how our media is structured. Even as we've bemoaned the concentration of corporate control of mass media, the point is there: our mass media is in private hands. It would be all but physically impossible to reverse that. All the Trump people can do, on the margins, is denigrate and attempt to humiliate the free press, while using a collectively smaller partisan group of sympathetic outlets to push narratives more favorable to their worldview. Yes, the world of Fox and Drudge and Breitbart and talk radio trades on the Trump narrative and leads significant numbers of Americans to believe the lies. But we remain worlds away from the "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery" perversion of our every act of public communication.
The distinction matters because, at the most basic level, we give Trump and his cronies too much credence and too much power imbuing them with the ability to warp the very act of public communication and the reporting of journalists; journalism will survive. By all means, we need to question everything, challenge every falsehood, expose every lie. This is a battle over something most of us didn't think needed fighting, and in some ways, yes, we are ill-prepared. But we are not defenseless, and we are not fighting the Ministry of Truth. And keeping things in perspective is as much an act of honesty as forcing Spicer, Conway, et al to own their lies. Without it, I'm not sure what we're actually trying to save.