There is a famous psychological test involving a video of people passing around basketballs. They are dodging in and out, circling around, some wearing white shirts and pants, some wearing black. The test subject is asked to count how many times the people in white pass the ball.
So the subject stares raptly, silently ticking off the numbers, and when it is done, he or she announces a tally. Whereupon the tester says “Fine. But did you see the gorilla?” In the middle of the video, a guy in a gorilla suit walks right through the middle of everything and most people are so intent on counting, they miss it.
Which brings us to the astonishing “alternative facts” the new White House has been heaving around. Since the election, D.C. has been in an uproar as the new administration has made claims about the record size of the inauguration audience, President Trump’s win of the popular vote, and the millions of ballots supposedly cast by undocumented immigrants. All of which can be dismissed with a word: Bunk.
But of course a lot more words have been bandied about. Critics have raged about Team Trump’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward the truth. The White House has railed right back about how the media and others are always just trying to drag him down. And through it all, I wonder if the gorillas are just storming past.
See, while such easily disproven and outlandish claims are quick to excite public imagination and to infuriate the president’s foes, they are also enormous distractions. They devour headlines and keep voters from focusing on things like, oh say, those confirmation hearings in which we might actually learn a thing or two about the new cabinet. They swallow the schedules of reporters who must spend yet another day re-checking a claim already proven false.
We — not just the media — all of us, need to quit being so easily lured off of the real task at hand. We are not here to count basketballs. We’re looking for gorillas.
(CNN’s Tom Foreman was never very good at basketball, but he is the author of "My Year of Running Dangerously")