Marty Baron, my boss and the executive editor of The Washington Post, gave a commencement speech at Temple University over the weekend. It was on the fungible nature of truth in our modern world and how everyone is not, in fact, entitled to their own set of facts. This line — about the 2016 presidential race and politics more generally — stood out to me:
What has taken hold is an alternate reality, a virtual reality, where lies are accepted as truth and where conspiracy theories take root in the fertile soil of falsehoods.
One of the most frequent complaints I hear when people find out I am a political reporter is that “the media doesn’t fact-check Donald Trump enough.” To which I say BS. No one has been fact-checked more by “the media” — including WaPo’s own Fact Checker blog — than Trump. No one has received more Four Pinocchios ratings — denoting an outright falsehood — than Trump. (Seventy percent of the two dozen or so Trump statements the Fact Checker has examined have been awarded Four Pinocchios.) And no one cares less about those three previous sentences than Trump and the legions of supporters who propelled him to the Republican presidential nomination.
Glenn Kessler, who runs the Fact Checker, wrote a piece about Trump’s post-truth campaign over the weekend. Here’s a key line:
Trump makes Four-Pinocchio statements over and over again, even though fact checkers have demonstrated them to be false. He appears to care little about the facts; his staff does not even bother to respond to fact-checking inquiries.
Kessler’s piece and Baron’s speech make the same point in different ways: Trump and his supporters are simply not interested in the facts. Their distrust of the “mainstream” media is such that anything the media calls a “fact” is assumed to be a lie. Up is down. The sky isn’t blue if the media says it is. Journalists are corrupt and liberal; they couch their biases in “fact checking.”
As I’ve noted to many people who have badgered me about the media not doing its duty in regards to Trump’s decidedly casual relationship with fact: You are mistaking a lack of changed minds with a lack of fact checking. There has been a ton of the latter. It has produced almost none of the former. That is not a failure of fact checking. It is the death of the belief in fact.
This, from Baron, captures the state of affairs nicely:
Fact-checking by mainstream media organizations has no effect. We are objects of suspicion, accused of hiding facts. Seeing opportunity, politicians exploit these fabrications for their own ends, repeating them — or staying silent when they know full well they are untrue.
The blame for our post-fact political world — or maybe just our post-fact world — lies in lots of places.
The fragmentation of the media over the past decade has spawned dozens of ideologically driven news sites, radio stations and cable TV outlets. That leads to a siloing effect in which a conservative only consumes information that affirms their point of view. Ditto a liberal. You can go through each day as a well(-ish)-informed person without ever hearing a sliver of news that contradicts what you already believe.
The movement toward self-sorting — we increasingly live and work around those who think (and look) like us — also plays a part. (If you have not read “The Big Sort,” you need to do so immediately.)
Technological innovations — YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook — have enabled politicians to end-run all forms of media and tell their own stories to their supporters replete with their own “facts.”
And then there is the remarkably cynical exploitation of all of these realities by politicians — of which Trump is either the shining symbol or the notable nadir.
Willfully misrepresenting facts knowing that your audience will believe you no matter what anyone else tells them is a decidedly slippery slope. And a dangerous one. If you are willing to ignore facts about the “small” things, where do you draw the line on what you aren’t willing to fib about?
Again, Baron: “We must ask ourselves: How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?”
The answer is we can’t. Period. And a post-truth campaign inevitably leads to a post-truth presidency. The implications of what we are witnessing in the everyday back and forth of this campaign are dire. And, for the life of me, I can’t figure out when, if or how it will all end.