So, dear fellow producers and consumers of news, here are four suggested New Year’s resolutions for the media. I hope others in my industry will adopt them — and call me out if I don’t.
1. Make sure we’re in the information business, not the disinformation business.
Our president is an expert at getting the media to amplify his wildest, most unsubstantiated and often most self-serving claims — about the Bidens, a fictitious Ukraine server, carcinogenic windmills, etc. He knows that he can go months without a formal White House press briefing and instead just say a bunch of outrageous things at a rally that the media will repeat on loop.
Presumably, we repeat these outrageous statements to help the public assess their accuracy. That is a worthy goal: The president is still the leader of the free world, after all, and the public deserves to know when he’s blowing smoke. Even so, decades of psychological research suggest that repeatedly exposing people to a falsehood, even to debunk it, can instead reinforce belief in that falsehood.
Yes, it’s important to challenge misstatements or deliberate lies, especially consequential ones. But we need to lead with the facts, contest the falsehoods and swiftly return to the facts again. Instead of amplifying the lies, we must amplify the truths.
2. Related: Don’t spend more time analyzing an idea that the president proposes than he spent coming up with it.
This one is hard, I know. Sometimes Trump says things that are just so wrong, in so many ways, that it’s difficult to resist the urge to enumerate all the details of their wrongness.
But a 4 a.m. cyberbullying toilet tweet about Kim Jong Un doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an actual, deliberate shift in diplomatic strategy. A blurted parenthetical about how he’d love to pass a middle-class tax cut, the biggest tax cut ever, doesn’t mean he seriously plans to propose such a thing. Let’s not pretend a secret plan actually exists and then conjure up tea leaves for experts to read.
Don’t impute more seriousness or thoughtfulness than ad-libbed drivel deserves.
3. Spend more time talking about the things the government actually does and less time covering what government officials say or who’s ahead in the horse race.
There is excellent beat reporting being done on how the government is (or isn’t) restructuring health care, immigration, housing, environmental regulations and other issues that affect Americans. But we in the pundit class often instead emphasize palace intrigue, political jockeying, or how a particular development advantages one party or another at the ballot box. We need to remember that the purpose of elections isn’t just to win more elections; it’s to elect a government that actually does stuff.
Next year, let’s do a better job of explaining how political leaders’ actions affect people’s daily lives. Not just the political leaders in the White House, and not just those in Washington either — state and local government actions get far too little coverage relative to the amount of influence they have over how Americans live and work. That’s partly a function of the hollowing out of local news organizations, of course. But those of us employed at national organizations must do more to cover these issues, too.
Some significant policy developments are hard to understand and even harder to explain clearly and telegenically. Those are exactly the issues we in the media need to cover better.
4. Remember that just because the president did (or proposed) it doesn’t mean it’s bad; inversely, just because one of the president’s perceived opponents did (or proposed) it doesn’t mean it’s good.
We in the media have gotten better at resisting whataboutism and false equivalencies, which are favorite rhetorical tools of politicians in general and this responsibility-deflecting president in particular. But I fear there’s an overcorrection afoot — or, at least, a creeping timidity when it comes to critiquing those whom the president hopes to diminish.
There are ways to write about the flaws or unintended consequences of, say, Democrats’ various health-care plans without suggesting those problems are in any way comparable to the president’s own health plan (or lack thereof). There are likewise ways to cover the flaws of the FISA warrant application process without exonerating those it was used to investigate.
If journalists are ever to rebuild public trust in our work, we must begin by helping the public evaluate ideas and actions on their own merits, whoever their architects may be.