The Importance of Archiving During a Trump Presidency
Fact: a piece of information presented as having objective reality. This commonly-understood definition of the word has, whether inadvertently or deliberately, been misconstrued, misappropriated, and called into question by the Trump administration. Though this has been present throughout President Trump’s entire campaign, it peaked after recent media reports suggested that his inauguration crowd was particularly small in comparison to former President Obama’s, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer dubiously proclaimed in a press conference that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period”. In response to these reports and to Spicer’s rhetoric, Senior Aide to the President Kellyanne Conway proclaimed that some of his statements are “alternative facts.” Alternative facts are not facts. They are lies.
There is much to be said about how dangerous the notion of an “alternative fact” is, especially when it is coming from the White House, and more specifically, the leader of our country. Instead of delving into the the glaring problems surrounding the Trump administration blatantly lying to the American public, it is important to acknowledge that certain institutions are in jeopardy. Think tanks, scholarly research centers, and even government agencies work to produce concrete facts, not alternative ones. In the next four years, these institutions may face profound challenges from the White House for simply doing their jobs unbiasedly and correctly.
One of the most important examples of this phenomenon happened at the end of January, just days after President Trump was inaugurated. On January 25th, the Associated Press released a statement from the White House stating, “The Trump administration is mandating that any studies or data from scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency undergo review by political appointees before they can be released to the public”. Interpreted, in the terms of Trump supporters, both literally and seriously, this statement essentially signifies that any data that EPA scientists compile that counter the White House’s agenda will be hidden in the shadows away from the public. This could potentially conceal information about climate change that is life-threatening to not only the United States, but also to the world. Former EPA Staffers have explained that many reports were viewed by government officials “lightly” in the past, and that content was “rarely ever edited,” making the White House’s new protocol highly unorthodox, to say the least.
Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute explains, “Unlike ordinary political lying, which tries to persuade people of particular things that are false, disinformation aims to sow doubt and cynicism about everything that’s true”. Not only does this lying affect how the White House’s relationship with the media develops, but this ultimately undermines the efforts of a fact-checking, scholarly institute such as Brookings in conducting bipartisan and objective research. This think tank and other think tanks alike rely on the objectivity of the US Government in allowing them to publish their findings to the American public about the effects of public policy. If the Trump administration designs legislation to cut funding, by perhaps creating constraints on donation amounts, to certain think tanks, a snowball effect could be created where research information could become heavily partisan, perhaps even borderline propaganda. The American public ultimately loses out.
Orwellian analogies aside, an important way to combat a paranoid administration is through archiving. Archiving, the storing of documents and data in safe spaces, can preserve large amounts of useful information. One of the largest archives in the country is the National Archives. The National Archives is an administrative organization that focuses on storing and collecting both personal U.S. citizens’ documents as well as the federal government’s important documents. In an age of rapid technological growth, the Archives is creating new ways to save information discovered by governmental agencies so that they can be released to the public at any point for researching purposes.
Although the National Archives has its own initiative in which it is attempting to store online information (known as the Electronics Records Archives), it is not the only major player in the battle to preserve factual information. In December of last year, a volunteer effort called “End of Term Presidential Harvest 2016” was created by various libraries across the nation in an attempt to archive important government web pages that the Trump administration may deem “unimportant” or “trivial” into library databases. An important point to note here is that the National Archives and this volunteer campaign are organizations independent of the U.S. government, even if they are tasked with storing and releasing federal government documents. This potentially safeguards their efforts of preservation from impending, strict anti-”fact” legislation pushed through Congress.
In the ensuing battle against “alternative facts,” the media has a prominent, immediate role in calling out the lies propagated by the White House. Archiving organizations, however, have the more profound role of ensuring that actual facts are forever saved and accessible. These organizations are the genesis in the battle against dangerous subjectivity. In the next 4 years, the American public must realize the Trump administration’s dangerous subjectivity with regard to facts and must be prepared to combat it in any way possible. The power of archiving highlights one powerful principle that must be understood: objectivity is never mild.