Lies about election fraud and violent attacks on the Capitol are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to truth and integrity in US politics and the media’s response to it. The liberal media are anguished about what to do about it (Fox less so…) and aside from continuing to do their best to speak truth to power, many seem resigned that the struggle is futile.
The dilemma has National Public Radio wondering if we’ll ever share a common set of facts again. What’s the role of the press in defining a set of fundamental truths? And what happens when the mainstream media isn’t trusted by millions of Americans?
As NPR’s White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe says, “You have more access to information, but not necessarily to the truth.”
People have always believed “black” is “white” in face of incontrovertible evidence. Flat Earthers, for example, or those who believe we only walked on the moon in a TV studio, but recent events seem to suggest that all media — video, audio, print, radio, TV — can be disputed, denied, airbrushed out of existence. Distrust in journalism has gone mainstream. Can journalism fight back?
NPR convened a panel of experienced reporters to test the waters.
CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl says political coverage needs to have an opinion in order to counter the hyper opinionated coverage of the right.
“My daughter is telling me people her age, 40 and younger, want to know what you think. They don’t want to just hear that you’re in the middle; they don’t buy that. So say, ‘he lied,’ [or] ‘didn’t lie.’ Just do it. Because honestly, I’m having trouble threading us out of where we are.”
For CNN anchor Jake Tapper the watershed was Trump’s false accusation in 2016, that (then rival presidential nominee) Ted Cruz’s father had a hand in the Kennedy assassination.
“I just went on air and said, ‘That’s not an anti-Trump position or a pro-Cruz position. It’s a pro-truth position.’ I have been trying to report from that perspective, that clearly, since.
“I’m not trying to appease CNN viewers or appeal to them. All you can do is tell the news and share the news and give the facts and hope that people will just respect that.”
Rascoe says distrust of media is a far wider issue than Trump. “If we only focus on Trump voters versus non-Trump voters and not look at the fact that there were seeds of [government and media distrust] in communities, I think you miss a whole big part of this country.”
The task is huge of gaining back viewer, audience and community trust is huge and perhaps in vain.
“If our job is to persuade people, then we’re never going to be believed or trusted,” says Stahl. “At the heart of where we are right now in this country, as we all despair for the future of a democratic press, the freedom of the press: If nobody’s believing us, what’s our value?”
Stahl is pessimistic that the one of the foundations of The Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” has been fatally undermined.
“If people aren’t coming from the same place they believe you’re coming from, they may never believe you. You initially asked us, ‘Can we unthread this?’ And my answer is: I’m not sure.”
There is a glimmer of hope if you choose to follow Rascoe’s argument that the events of the past four years have incited renewed interest in sourcing truth, in the power of journalism even while its integrity was being trampled.
“A lot of people learned about political journalism, learned about journalism in general and saw the power of it,” she says. “So, I think there was a younger generation that was inspired by it and that there will be people that will come up, who will say they saw journalists during those times that inspired them to go into it.”
Listen to the episode from NPR’s series, “We Hold These Truths,” in the audio player below: