“Well, we’re interrupting this because what the president of the United States is saying, in large part, is absolutely untrue,” said CNBC anchor Shepard Smith as his network pulled away from Donald Trump making baseless post-election claims about illegal voting. As did other networks. Journalism’s belated turn against falsehood should resonate far beyond the US.
Trump’s was the most successful project of political lying in a modern democracy. His 22,000-plus misleading or false claims, as documented by the Washington Post, set a record that may long outlive him. On the upside, he has taught social media and journalism how to deal with future political liars. Facebook and Twitter are finally slapping warnings on his false posts. Now my profession needs to adopt the standards of evidence of the law courts and science.
In Trump’s first five years in politics, journalists fell into the trap of amplifying his falsehoods. When he launched his candidacy in 2015 by claiming that “Mexico” was sending “rapists” north, journalists were caught unawares. They didn’t know how to handle a politician who simply made stuff up. Previous politicians, many of them law graduates, had preferred the lawyer’s trick of using convoluted, weaselly language to muddy the truth. So in 2015, TV channels let Trump keep crying “rapist”. They should have noted that undocumented immigrants appear to have lower crime rates than native-born Americans, then stopped repeating his unfounded claims.
In part, letting falsehoods pass was lazy journalism, in a profession that traditionally privileges access over accuracy. More significantly, TV loves a ratings magnet. CNN’s boss Jeff Zucker live-streamed Trump’s rallies and hinted at offering him a weekly show. Though most media opposed Trump, it’s also true that media made him. TV, even with falling audiences, still provides much of the material that goes viral on social media.
Trump’s inventions — Obama spied on me! Mail voting is fraud! — were allowed to drive the news agenda. Once the media’s energy is spent debating whether a falsehood is true, truth has already lost. Post-lie fact-checking rarely has the impact of the initial lie.
For all the fuss about Russian bots and Macedonian teenagers, presidential falsehoods are uniquely potent. Studies by Harvard and Cornell this summer each found that the leading transmitter of disinformation in the US was Trump. Only after he lost the election, notes Anya Schiffrin of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, did the media dare confiscate his megaphone. Finally, American journalism is adopting the legal-scientific model: just as courts and scientific journals reject unsubstantiated claims, so now do TV channels.
The new journalistic approach isn’t so much “speak truth to power” as “force power to speak truth to us”. That still allows journalists to cover policies even-handedly. Trumpist politicians can go on TV to advocate for a border wall or tax cuts for the rich. They just can’t lie. Nor should they get airtime to deny climate change or warn against vaccines, unless they have peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Ideally, anyone disseminating falsehoods won’t get invited back.
The legal-scientific model requires TV journalists to prepare like lawyers in court. If a politician crams six lies into a 90-second interview, the journalist needs to be fully briefed to catch them, because most viewers won’t have the information. Doing a live interview becomes a high-wire act: the moment a journalist mistakenly claims that a politician is wrong, up goes the cry of “fake news”.
Imagine how this model would have improved debate before Britain’s referendum on Brexit. Journalists wouldn’t have repeated the Leave side’s claim that the UK “sends” £350m to Brussels each week. But silencing falsehoods is only a start. The legal-scientific model also means downgrading claims for which evidence is weak. During the referendum campaign, then prime minister David Cameron kept repeating the Treasury’s forecast that Brexit would cause an instant year-long recession. Broadcasters should have said: economic forecasts are usually wrong (as this one proved) so we won’t amplify them. Likewise, journalists should downplay increasingly unreliable polls.
It’s better to privilege empirical information from actual participants. Instead of letting politicians spin Brexit, ask exporters, drivers and trade negotiators for testimonies from the ground.
A new journalism can’t undo the damage from Trump. Since 2015, Republicans have absorbed his falsehoods and become emotionally wedded to them. Most of his voters now seem to believe his claims (repeatedly dismissed by the courts) that the election wasn’t fair. Some Republicans are migrating to far-right social media that tolerate lying. However, the legal-scientific approach to journalism could thwart the next Trump. If journalists deny airtime to lies, they will incentivise politicians to tell the truth. That might just increase trust in both professions.
Journalism’s next test may come when the Biden administration rolls out vaccines against the coronavirus, and Trump warns against taking them. We’ll know we have learnt and grown if Jeff Zucker doesn’t broadcast his claim live.
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