Last Sunday, NBC devoted its final 2019 broadcast of Meet the Press to the question of how responsible media can handle fake news when the Republican Party and Trump administration are invested in disinformation as a political strategy. It was refreshing to see a prominent news program call out what Republicans are doing in unambiguous terms, but more than a little disconcerting that the program’s host, Chuck Todd, seemed clueless about how to stop the manipulation. Actually, Todd’s bemused approach to the problem was far more than disconcerting. It was maddening, like a firefighter looking at a burning building and asking, “now what are we going to do?”
Any mainstream journalist will tell you their job is to uncover and communicate the relevant facts of news stories, wherever those facts may lead. Todd’s recognition that Republicans are waging what he called “an assault on truth” should require him to do something about it if he wants to be a journalist and not a pawn in the hijacking of public discourse. Yet the discussion on Meet the Press avoided mention of the difficult choices someone like Todd would have to make if he was serious about combatting White House propaganda.
Mainstream news reporting is built around access to sources, balance and conflict. Access journalism requires reporters to maintain a pipeline to political players on both sides of the aisle, and treats high level administration and congressional leaders as marquee figures whose participation on programs like Meet the Press give it A-list status. Balanced reporting allows journalists to defend against charges of bias and is built on the assumption that political questions are objectively composed of two equal sides, which the reporter is trained to address in an evenhanded way. Conflict keeps eyeballs from wandering and is a key ingredient in assuring the commercial success of news organizations.
This celebrity-driven, both-sides-do-it, sensational approach to news reporting was problematic when there was a national factual consensus about events. It is thoroughly dangerous today, making it easy for purveyors of false narratives, who know they will have access to air time regardless of what they say, to manipulate mainstream journalists by making blatantly untrue statements guaranteed to be reported. They understand their claims will not be called out, but communicated alongside the true statements made by their political opponents. The resulting coverage makes it hard for people to know what’s real because the facts never converge.
Here’s how it works. A reporter will ask a Democratic and Republican source about, say, whether a particular fish dish tastes good. Back in the days of political consensus, the Democrat would tell the reporter the fish tastes good and the Republican would tell the reporter it does not taste good. The reporter would balance these two statements against each other and not draw any conclusions about the culinary worth of the fish except to note the partisan divide over its taste. In today’s era of disinformation, the Democrat will say the fish tastes good and the Republican will say it is not a fish but a cactus, and it does not taste good. Of course, the reporter knows the fish is a fish and not a cactus. So does the Republican source. But in order to conform to the requirements of balanced coverage, the reporter covers the dispute between the sources over whether the fish is a fish or a cactus, leaving in doubt the fundamental factual basis of the exchange. The viewer comes away not knowing what to know.
What can the journalist do in a situation like this? How about demanding that sources admit that a fish is a fish before giving them air time? Before giving a platform to administration officials or Republican congressional leaders to discuss, say, impeachment, require them not to make debunked claims. Make them stipulate to verifiable facts, for instance that Russia and not Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. Do not schedule them for broadcast or use them as sources if they refuse. If you put them on the air and they lie anyway, pull them off in mid-sentence and explain to the audience why. Then do not invite them back. No more sound bites about alternative facts that leave lies unchallenged, no more arguing over the veracity of information. Journalists should assert facts they know to be true — facts so reliably sourced that they meet journalistic standards for publication — and not give a forum to anyone who would try to use their platform to deceive or confuse. That includes the president, his tweets, and his rallies.
This is a costly thing for reporters to do. They will end up severing ties with a good portion of official Washington. Likely no one from the White House or Republican leadership will appear again. News stories will no longer be balanced. News organizations and their parent companies will have to forgo some of the lucrative eyeball-catching drama of the Trump presidency. Business and professional prerogatives would have to be set aside for the greater interest of protecting the republic.
I suspect Chuck Todd realizes this, which is why he chose to come across as naive about how to cover Trump all these years rather than risk appearing complicit. But he must know better. If every mainstream television and print outlet required their sources to admit a fish is a fish before being given a media platform, we could begin to address the epistemological crisis of our era by building a shared set of facts for everyone who does not choose to live inside an alternative fact bubble. Of course, social media will continue to sow confusion. There will still be Fox News. But rather than exacerbating this problem, mainstream media would provide an important counterweight to it by clearly prompting the majority of people outside the bubble toward facts and away from confusion.
We are getting closer to an election that will be fraught with conflict and danger regardless of the outcome, and we need and deserve a clear understanding of the stakes. It is long past time for responsible reporters to step up. The Washington Post masthead reads, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” It can also die in fog.