At a rally on Wednesday night, President Trump accused Hillary Clinton of conspiring with Russia to try to swing the 2016 election. “There was collusion between Hillary, the Democrats, and Russia,” Trump said, adding that there was “a lot” of such “collusion.” As always, the crowd chanted: “Lock her up!”
This claim is based on an absurd and convoluted theory about the genesis of the Russia investigation that has been flatly debunked as a massive lie. But here is how NBC News’s Twitter feed treated it:
Incredibly, even though Trump has made more than 5,000 false or misleading statements as president, major news organizations’ social media feeds continue to inject his unadulterated lies into the political bloodstream without clearly informing readers that they are just that — lies.
Yes, NBC’s story on this new lie did say it’s “evidence free.” But the fact that the social media feeds themselves are regularly awash in Trumpian falsehoods represents a serious institutional failing. As Brian Beutler notes, this “should be the easiest problem in the world to solve,” but instead, we’re getting “abject professional failure after abject professional failure.”
On Wednesday, USA Today published a piece by Trump in which “almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood,” as Glenn Kessler put it. All these went initially uncorrected, and USA Today’s feed featured multiple tweets spreading its falsehoods and distortions. We have seen this again and again.
This may seem trivial — who cares about single tweets? — but they all add up to a gushing Amazon River of disinformation. In my forthcoming book, “An Uncivil War,” I have a chapter called “Disinformation Nation” that discusses this problem and what to do about it. An adapted excerpt follows:
It is a great irony of the current political moment: By broadcasting forth Trump’s lies in tweets and headlines — while declining to inform readers that they are just that, and while burying the truth deep within accompanying articles — the organizations that Trump regularly derides as “fake news” are themselves spreading a species of fake news.
That is, fake news authored by Trump himself.
There is little doubt that a deceiver as prolific and innovative as Trump grasps — whether instinctively or consciously — that those getting news from social media and on mobile devices often read no further than headlines or tweets, and that the transmitting out of disinformation that gets amplified in headlines and news feeds helps him exploit this facet of the shifting information landscape.
“The importance of headlines is arguably even greater now in the social media era, because a lot of people are in passive consumption mode,” Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed News, told me. BuzzFeed came of age in the Internet area, so has perhaps been quicker than others to grasp the disinformational danger this poses.
“When people see stuff on social media, what they often see is only the headlines,” Silverman said. “If you are restating claims that are false or misleading in headlines, you are spreading misinformation. And social media is pouring gasoline on that fire.”
This is a crucial insight, and while things have gotten better in recent months, the problem remains one that plenty of traditional journalists and news organizations still refuse to take seriously enough. You constantly see headlines on news organizations’ websites that blare forth a politician’s false, dubious or unsupported claims without informing readers that those claims are, well, false or dubious or unsupported. Often it requires reading deep into a story to discover a corrective, if there is a corrective at all.
This is part and parcel of a broader problem, in which too many newspaper editors and television producers still continue to fear that if they forcefully — and prominently, right in tweets and headlines — call out Trump’s lies for what they are, they will somehow come across as biased or lacking in objectivity. Indeed, some editors have offered the tortured argument that they should refrain from using the word “lie” because it suggests knowledge of Trump’s intent to mislead, which cannot be conclusively established.
But this rigs the game in Trump’s favor: One cannot ever conclusively prove whether Trump is intentionally lying, as opposed to just delusional or hopelessly uninformed. Yet if Trump repeats a falsehood over and over after it has been debunked, it is obviously deliberate deception; if news organizations refrain from calling this out as such, they are failing to accurately describe what is right there in plain sight.
This misleads readers and viewers not just in each particular case. Importantly, it also misleads them more broadly about the truly sinister and deliberate nature of Trump’s ongoing campaign to obliterate the possibility of shared agreement on facts and on the news media’s legitimate institutional role in keeping voters informed. The resulting standard does not reckon seriously with the scale of the challenge to the truth he poses. It ends up portraying his ongoing campaign of flood-the-zone lying as conventional dishonesty or mere incompetence, which in turn paints a profoundly misleading picture of the realities of the current moment.
A much broader challenge
Early in the Trump presidency, media critic Jay Rosen wrote a pair of prescient essays arguing that Trump’s nonstop falsehoods were part of something much bigger — a concerted and deliberate assault by Trump and his allies on the media’s core institutional role in our democracy, one aided and abetted by shifting information technologies. In response, Rosen argued, media figures must commit to a new public mindset that mounts a concerted defense of the news media’s core liberal democratic values, in part by treating the totality of Trump’s lies as the broader threat that they really represent.
American journalism has confronted moments like this before. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the profession was tested in then-new ways by a confluence of cultural and political changes, including the growth of the federal government and mass media; the increasing transparency of Congress via innovations such as the Freedom of Information Act; and the massive official deception around the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.
As media scholar Michael Schudson has recounted, journalists and news organizations adapted by becoming more probing and analytical, and by asserting themselves more aggressively toward powerful figures. These changes, Schudson noted, brought a “new skepticism and critical instinct to journalism,” which enabled the profession to evolve along with changes in American society and political culture.
To be fair, there have been many signs that leading journalists grasp the urgent need for their profession to rise to all these current challenges. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter’s newsletter recently reported that within newsrooms, there is “more and more introspection” about the media’s response to Trumpian deception tactics, and about whether the press is compounding the “damage” by airing and repeating falsehoods without any adequate institutional response to it.
So we may be in the midst of another transition, similar to the one that unfolded a generation ago. The news media seems to be retaining its core institutional independence and appears to be finding new ways to adapt. But as Hannah Arendt put it in a famous 1967 meditation on “Truth and Politics,” back during that previous period of serious institutional adaptation by the press, those two things — politics and factual truth — are perpetually “on rather bad terms with each other.”
Thanks to the rise of Trump, those terms are particularly bad right now. Perhaps we will get through this. But we are learning all over again, as Arendt put it, that “factual truth is fragile in politics, and its survival is never guaranteed.”