President Donald Trump didn’t create the media cesspool that he’ll bequeath to a troubled nation. He just made it exponentially worse — not only with his own constant lies but with his ability to spread the ugliness.
Just days ago, he tweeted out a debunked conspiracy theory that a company that makes voting machines had deleted millions of Trump votes. And though he — barring true disaster — will leave office in January, the widespread disinformation system that he fostered will live on.
Social media platforms, streaming “news” channels and innumerable websites will spew lies and conspiracy theories, and will keep weakening the foundation of reality that America’s democracy needs in order to function.
So what, if anything, can the reality-based press do to counter it?
I see three necessities.
First, be bolder and more direct than ever in telling it like it is. No more pussy-foooting or punch-pulling. No more of what’s been called “false equivalence” — giving equal weight to truth and lies in the name of fairness.
I’ve been encouraged to see more of this unabashed approach lately. “Trump wages full assault to overturn election,” read the print-edition banner headline in Friday’s Washington Post. The first paragraph described his “orchestrating a far-reaching pressure campaign … to overturn the will of voters.”
And David Sanger of The New York Times began his analysis: “President Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election are unprecedented in American history, an even more audacious use of brute political force to gain the White House than when Congress gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency during Reconstruction.”
Earlier last week, “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell and correspondent Paula Reid described the state of the nation in stark terms.
Reid’s first words: “Even as top health experts warned the pandemic is spiraling out of control, President Trump made no mention of it today, had no public appearances and tweeted only falsehoods about the election.” One of the first visuals: A hospital room with health-care workers scrambling to treat COVID-19 patients.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opening three minutes of a network evening news broadcast quite like this,” said University of Maine media historian Michael Socolow.
Socolow called it “brilliant showing not telling,” and told me that it was more likely to get through to those in denial because it used everyday Americans — Michigan voters, nurses, etc. — instead of politicians to deliver the message.
Can these mainstream outlets, influential as they are, really go up against the counter-messaging on places like Fox News, or Steve Bannon’s podcast or fact-averse outlets like Newsmax, with its surging, though still relatively small, viewership? On the latter, Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell was given an unchecked platform to declare: “The election could not have been more rigged than it was.” In what should be astonishing, but isn’t, the Republican National Committee used its official Twitter account Thursday to promote this same lie of hers: “President Trump won by a landslide.”
This battle can’t be fought with facts alone, argues journalism scholar Nikki Usher of the University of Illinois.
The only hope, she wrote, is for mainstream journalism to appeal to passion as well as reason — “providing moral clarity along with truthful content.” Or, as NYU’s Jay Rosen recently wrote, journalism must reposition itself in the media ecosystem, to seize this moment in history to take a clear stance, in everything it does, as “pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist, and aggressively pro-democracy.”
In other words, the reality-based press has to unapologetically stand for something. Otherwise, it’s just a pallid alternative to the excitement of burgeoning lies.
And third, journalists and news organizations have to get much more involved in media literacy — working with educators and advocates to teach people of all ages, but especially students, to distinguish lies from truth, propaganda from factual reporting.
This can be an uncomfortable role for journalists because it smacks of advocacy, something that mainstream journalists are taught to be wary of. Still, some organizations and journalists are working on it.
Last week, I was a guest on a call-in radio program on Wisconsin Public Radio, talking about media coverage of the election’s aftermath. Two of the three callers I fielded, though polite, were misinformed. Both were convinced that it’s too early for President-elect Biden to claim victory since the votes haven’t really been counted.
This is untrue. With a few minor exceptions in places that can’t possibly make a difference, the tallies are complete. There is no question that Biden is the unequivocal winner, both in the popular vote and the Electoral College.
But I can’t imagine that my responses changed their minds. They sounded dug in. And, remember, these were public-radio listeners, presumably not Alex Jones fans.
Can journalists, mired in our “how we’ve always done it” mindset, really change their stripes to fight the war on disinformation? Can we be more clear and direct, embrace a moral purpose, help to educate news consumers? And even if we do, will it make a significant difference?
I have serious doubts about the answers to those questions. But I do know that we have to try.