Who won the US poll? Regardless of Donald Trump’s spin, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” You know it when Fox News, Trump’s mainstay, is the first to call Arizona for Biden. Networks that had struggled while covering Trump’s live events laced with falsehoods, claims made during the campaign or about coronavirus, are now united in their pushback against his fibs.
Three major networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — pulled away from Trump’s rambling press conference questioning the integrity of the election. CNN and Fox ran captions under his speech and rebutted his claims. CNBC interrupted the feed to clarify that his allegations about election interference, fake polls and a red wave lacked even “a scintilla of evidence”. MSNBC, with its liberal viewership, had cut away from Trump’s press conferences even earlier in the week.
In these wised-up times when we are sceptical about a single truth, the US media still came around to calling a lie a lie.
Last June, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi outlined how the news media began baldly calling out Trump’s lies. The New York Times started using the word early, but insisted that it did so judiciously, for specific instances. CNN catalogued the Trump team’s “lies and falsehoods” on the Mueller report, the New Yorker explored why Trump knowingly lied to people. During the Stormy Daniels affair, the Washington Post fact-check was headlined: “Not just misleading. Not merely false. A lie.” Twitter also started putting warning labels, tagging specific Trump tweets as ‘misleading’.
Trump’s political career began with conspiracy theories — from smears about Obama’s foreign birth to declaring his Democratic leaders part of a Satanist ring, paedophiles and so on. While these Pizzagate and QAnon communities have been sources of support, Trump himself has speculated that climate change is a Chinese hoax, that Antonin Scalia might have been murdered, that Ted Cruz’s father was linked to the Kennedy assassination, and so on.
Misinformation was a conscious strategy — former Trump tactician Steve Bannon described the plan to inundate the media, to “flood the zone with s—t”. When Trump blatantly lied about the attendance at his inauguration, his team called it “alternative facts”. Even cheerleaders like Fox anchor Tucker Carlson admitted that Trump couldn’t be taken at his word, affectionately called him a boaster, a booster, a selfpromoter and “bs artist”. Yet, his supporters saw him as truthful, if not factual — as a straight-talking blow to the strangling liberal consensus.
While Trump has kept professional fact-checkers busy, the media has also struggled to deal with his firehose of falsehoods. A study by Harvard professor Yochai Benkler found that between 2015 and 2018, the mainstream media had a bigger role in amplifying them than social media. They could not refuse to cover White House events, and often presented a false balance as fairness, giving unwitting visibility to outrageous theories. Repeated exposure to false ideas can make people believe them, and Trump successfully played the media with his provocations.
But when Trump declared “fake news media” an “enemy of the people” and an “opposition party” in 2018, the media came together to resist the discrediting. That August, 300 newspapers across the US coordinated their response in hundreds of editorials reminding citizens of the stakes in a free press.
Most of the US mainstream media learned late in the day that rather than trying to appear neutral between two sides, they should aim for “a baseline reality and evidentiary standard”, as media critic Jay Rosen put it.
In India, the media has been less than aggressive in calling out official claims that fly in the face of facts. But to be fair, few politicians around the world have played as fast and loose with the truth as Trump. And in finally refusing to be spun around by disinformation, the US media is learning to keep its head and do its job.
Courtesy Times of India