Media, Truth, and Trump: What the Absence of Fact Does to Democracy

When Martin Luther wanted to spread his message during the Protestant Reformation, he and his supporters circulated pamphlets with text and images characterizing the Catholic Church as malicious, greedy, and scheming. In China, just a couple of months ago, when government officials wanted to extend the alleged time-frame of the Sino-Japanese war by six years, they edited textbooks to reflect the new dates, all while China’s state-owned, state-led news enterprises criticized Japan for having changed their history books.

These are blatant instances of political propaganda. The average American smells sin in that word itself–so ingrained in our cultural ideals is the concept of distance between politics and responsible journalism.

American presidents have had spats with the media in the past, and occasionally their grievances have seeped out of private conversations and into the public sphere. In 2009, in a conversation about how various media outlets covered the administration, Obama’s then-Communications Director Anita Dunn told CNN, “What I think is fair to say about Fox – and certainly the way we view it – is that it is really more of a wing of the Republican party.”

This asserts the administration’s lack of respect for the editorial independence of a major American news organization. As the press is often referred to as the “fourth estate,” a fourth branch of government that sustains an informed democracy, villainizing any national news source carries the potential to threaten democracy.

In a recent interview, former president George W. Bush shared his views that a free press is “indispensable to democracy.”

I agree. Those are very nice words to hear from anyone, especially a President. So on February 17, when the current president conversely described outlets including NBC, The New York Times, ABC, CBS, and CNN, the “fake news media,” many reacted with fear for the security of our democracy. I might have considered that response exaggerated if Trump hadn’t released a highly biased media accountability survey a day earlier. And maybe still I would have been open to discussion on Trump’s opinion of free press in America if he hadn’t excluded four major national news sources from a scheduled press briefing a week later.

It is natural for politicians to have an ambivalent, occasionally hostile relationship with the press. Reporters, as human beings, make mistakes. As sometimes biased individuals, their inaccuracies might in rare cases be intentional. Other times reporters do in fact manipulate or conceal the truth to propel their network’s political leanings.

But since Trump was inaugurated, it seems the media has only done its job better and more responsibly than ever before. In many cases, he and his people do the lying, leaving a clear pathway for journalists to point out the lies and analyze why they were said in the first place. The first example that comes to mind is the famously inane “alternative facts” line delivered by Kellyanne Conway just two days after the Inauguration, used in an attempt to legitimize Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s lies about crowd size.

Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, went on television on February 24 saying there were no ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, even though Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned because of them. A week and a half later, the Justice Department disclosed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met twice with the Russian ambassador during the Trump campaign. This undercut Sessions’ sworn testimony that he had not had contact with Russian officials, and he recused himself from investigations relating to the Trumps campaign’s contacts with Russia.

When Trump goes a day without lying, it’s newsworthy. On March 1, 2017, he reportedly went a whole day without lying and was able to accomplish this largely by not speaking.

As far as Trump is concerned, the truth is whatever he says it is. That makes him the standard. Supplanting objective truth with Trump truth is authoritarian.

It is harder to explain why Trump lies about the things that don’t matter rather than why he lies about the things that do. If he’s part of a conspiracy with the Russians to subvert American democracy, it’s clear why he would lie and instruct all of his lieutenants to lie about their participation in that conspiracy. However, Trump constantly lies about things that don’t matter and are easily verifiable as lies. For example, even after getting sworn into office, Trump lied repeatedly, asserting that there were three million illegal votes for his opponent and that he had the largest electoral college landslide since Ronald Reagan. There was no need for Trump to relitigate the election; he was already president. Nonetheless, it appears he still felt the lie was worth telling, even if all it could aid was his image.

The vast volume of Trump’s lies threatens to normalize them. If three million illegal votes had actually been cast, that would be a serious matter. But even moderately informed people understood as soon as they heard that allegation that it is absurd, and they don’t bother to take it seriously; it’s just another lie Trump told them. The sheer frequency of Trump’s dishonesty breeds complacency.

The claims made by the president are met with smirks rather than alarm. The informed public knows to always question and distrust arguments made by the most powerful man in the world. Trump also puts an extra burden on the press: how to report on Trump. Is it biased to call a lie a lie? He uses the press’ desire to remain neutral against it. If they merely repeat what he says, they become organs of propaganda for him. But if they report on the truth that contradicts what he says, they become “enemies of the people.”
If journalism is to be neutral and objective, it has to despise lies and pursue truth. No matter what standard of truth Trump follows, the press’ should remain objective.

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