The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With impeachment looming, the news media is growing a spine. It needs stiffening.

Scott Pelley in a 2015 "60 Minutes" interview with then-Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
Scott Pelley in a 2015 "60 Minutes" interview with then-Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. (CBS)
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Scott Pelley of CBS pushed back hard when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to spin him on Sunday’s “60 Minutes.”

So did Chris Wallace of Fox News when Trump aide Stephen Miller refused to accept reality on the same subject: President Trump pressing Ukraine’s president to provide dirt on his political opponent.

So did Jake Tapper of CNN with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, and Chuck Todd of NBC with Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

The Tapper interview “centered on Jordan misrepresenting the allegations focused on Joe and Hunter Biden — allegations that have been broadly debunked,” my Post colleague Philip Bump wrote in a piece that gives a telling blow-by-blow of several Sunday interviews.

In every case, the interviewers were admirably well-prepared and assertive. Wallace even went so far as to call Miller’s responses “an exercise in obfuscation.”

Good to see.

And not nearly enough.

As the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry ramps up, so, too, does the Trump disinformation campaign — spreading its fact-averse surrogates throughout the media world in an all-out effort to sway public opinion.

Make no mistake, public opinion — more than any other factor — will determine what happens.

William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution looked back recently on the two most recent presidential impeachments.

“The first, which ended in 1974, led to the resignation of its target — President Richard Nixon. The second, which began in 1998 against President Bill Clinton, led to the resignation of the man who had orchestrated the effort — House Speaker Newt Gingrich.”

Among the determining factors: public opinion.

“The public must be convinced that the charges are true — and that they are weighty enough to justify overturning the results of a presidential election,” if an impeachment is not to backfire, Galston wrote.

With the stakes so high, the media has to step up more than ever before to help news consumers — American citizens — figure out where they stand.

That’s going to be increasingly challenging over the next weeks and months.

That public opinion be based on facts — not weaponized falsehoods — is about the most crucial work the media can do.

How can journalists rise to the challenge?

First, by being quick on their feet and utterly prepared, and, as noted, we’re seeing more of that.

Interviewers have wised up.

By contrast, Pelley was not nearly as ready when he interviewed Mike Cernovich, the pro-Trump blogger and author, in 2017 on “60 Minutes.” A lot of viewers came away from that interview feeling that the respected newsman was caught off-guard — and that Cernovich owned the exchange as he turned the tables about how the 2016 election played out.

Charlie Warzel, an astute observer of right-wing disinformation, described what happened and why it would keep on happening.

“The New Right media isn’t just an opposition force to the mainstream media — it’s a parallel institution armed with its own set of facts that insists on its own reality,” he wrote in BuzzFeed News.

So, too, Trump’s surrogates, some of whom are members of the media themselves.

One only has to tune in for an evening to Fox News prime-time shows to see this in full swing.

“Totally untethered from reality,” is the accurate description by Oliver Darcy, a reporter who focuses on right-wing media for CNN.

“If The Gateway Pundit and Infowars formed a cable news channel, it’d look something like the 2019 version of Fox prime time programming,” he tweeted.

The second way that news organizations can meet the challenge of this moment is to stop booking those surrogates who are the worst of the inveterate liars. I’d put Trump shills Corey Lewandowski and Kellyanne Conway in this ever-growing category.

Conway famously touted her allegiance to “alternate facts” early in the Trump presidency — and has stayed right with the program.

And Lewandowski recently admitted lying to the media in recent congressional testimony: “I have no obligation to be honest with the media because they’re just as dishonest as anyone else.”

Third — and this goes well beyond TV interviews — the mainstream media must end its addiction to both-sides journalism, which gives falsehood the same opportunities as truth.

In this case, that involves equating what Trump did with the accusations of undue influence in Ukraine by former vice president Joe Biden.

Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times took this on in a column headlined “Trump’s Claims About Biden Aren’t ‘Unsupported.’ They’re Lies.”

“Journalists, perhaps seeking to appear balanced, have sometimes described Trump’s claims about Biden as ‘unsubstantiated’ or ‘unsupported,’ ” she wrote. That’s misleading, she continued after ticking through the known facts.

These claims aren’t just unproven — they’re falsehoods that shouldn’t be soft-pedaled in the name of fairness.

I’m not suggesting that reporters, interviewers and news operations advocate for a particular outcome in the looming impeachment.

That’s not the job of the press in America’s democracy.

But they must carry out their mission: to get to the truth so citizens can make wise decisions and not be bamboozled by lies and distractions.

Correction: A previous version of this column said Rep. Jim Jordan was the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. It is the House Oversight Committee. This column has been updated.

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