Fighting Politicians' War on Truth

U.S. journalists have an obligation to call out presidential candidates when they lie.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

NBC News’ Matt Lauer’s performance as moderator of a recent public forum featuring Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has led to some modest journalistic soul-searching. If journalists want the public to retain even an ounce of respect for their craft, they should do more than that—and they should start right now, by declaring a boycott on bullshit.

Lauer, among other things, allowed Trump to lie repeatedly without making much attempt to set the record straight. But Lauer was only doing what so many others have done throughout this political cycle.

His haplessness surely has led the moderators of the upcoming presidential debates to ask themselves how they’ll handle Trump’s proclivity for rapid-fire lying or, for that matter, the more occasional dissembling from Hillary Clinton. Perhaps the debate hosts will emulate what journalists have done in at least some cases: telling their audiences that a candidate is lying, assuming they’ve done enough homework to know. (Fox News’ Chris Wallace has explicitly said he won’t do this.)

The problem is that simply calling out lies is not enough. Once the lie is spoken out loud, even a quick rebuttal—assuming it’s issued on the spot—doesn’t undo all the damage. This is partly because repeating a lie, which is generally part of the debunking process, can reinforce it. Moreover, a phenomenon called confirmation bias leads people who want to believe something to believe it even more after they’ve been shown they’re wrong.

So maybe it’s time for journalists who care to try some new, stronger tactics to fight back against the war on truth that Trump and so many others have been waging this year. Nothing they do is going to fix this problem, but doing more of the same guarantees that nothing will change.

For the debates, I’d propose an experiment for a brave TV news channel or website. Put the entire program on a time delay, say 10 minutes. This would give the news channel time to do the following:

  • Have teams of experts on the topics likely to be discussed examine the veracity of candidates’ claims.
  • If they determine that a candidate is lying, programmers kill the sound going to viewers’ TVs and other screens. While the line can be difficult to draw, I’d do this only for brazen lies—such as Trump’s easily proved lie that he publicly opposed the Iraq War before it started—not standard policy overpromises.
  • During the silences, of which there would no doubt be many, viewers would see the candidate’s lips moving. But there would be an overlay of text saying, “He’s talking about [insert subject] but making false statements; here’s the truth about this subject: ... ” and so on.
  • Although the sound would remain on during the can’t-possibly-be-kept promises, another overlay would explain that reality, and why.

There’s more, but those give you the basic idea. The point is not to expose the viewers of that particular forum to the lies in the first place, at least not on first viewing. I take for granted that many viewers would go back and listen to the lies directly. But they’d have some appropriate context even if they did.

Again, this would be an experiment—one of many, I’d hope. Others might include a split screen that denounces the lies on one side immediately after they’re uttered on the other. But that again gives the liars what they want in the first place.

I’m betting that no major TV outlet would entertain any of my suggestions. Ratings are ratings, after all. And the ongoing success of tabloid news is testament to giving the public what it wants: infotainment. Call me old-fashioned. I believe in journalism’s crucial role as a counterbalance to untrammeled power and false propaganda. When journalists see a blatant, systemic dysfunction in American political culture, they have an obligation that transcends money.

People have the right to lie. And other people have the right to listen to them, and believe the lies if they choose. Improved media literacy might reduce the latter group by instilling critical-thinking skills more widely. But journalists can at the very least make an effort not to make things worse, as so many are doing today.

Whatever they try, media people have to do something to regain some control over their integrity. Right now they’re being played for suckers by manipulators whose propaganda skills are vastly better than journalists’ apparent ability to do their jobs.

As it happens, I favor Hillary Clinton in this race. But this isn’t about advancing the interests of a particular candidate. When she lies, she should be held to the same standard. It's about changing the structural incentives for all candidates—and for journalists.

Debates are only one part of the problem. There’s absolutely no excuse for TV news channels to let campaign surrogates lie on air. A simple policy change would fix that: Lie once, and you never appear on our programs again. Period. Maybe there’s an endless supply of dishonest surrogates, but maybe not.

And text-based media outlets can do their part when candidates or surrogates lie. Don’t publish the lie. Do explain what topic the candidate was addressing. Explain that the candidate was lying. Tell the truth about that topic. Or ignore it entirely.

I can think of a lot of objections to my boycott of bullshit, some better than others. At some level the press has a duty to report what would-be presidents say. But when people like Trump so thoroughly smash through the boundaries that have prevailed in the past—exploiting the media’s greatest vulnerabilities in the process—isn’t there some obligation to decline to do business as usual? Given the ability of candidates to put videos and other media online themselves, no member of the public who wants to hear everything they say will be refused. Moreover, we can count on at least some media outlets to run the debates live and without comment. My plea, again, is that some journalists, somewhere, do something to counteract the poison spreading through our political system.

Nor is this a blanket condemnation of all American political journalists. At least a few have done good work in this campaign, and the audible angst in the craft suggests we’ll see more.

But their efforts are drowning in the massive journalistic malpractice by others. The craft doesn’t have much credibility left to squander, and a lot to regain. Journalists need to try some new approaches, before it’s too late.