Democracy depends upon an educated citizenry. Implicit in the concept of a government in which the will of the people directs policy, law, and leadership is the notion that citizens participate in the political process as rational, informed actors. Unfortunately, this ideal of democracy doesn’t always play out, as people are far too often not fully educated on issues, are influenced by irrational emotions, and may not be in favor of any of the options offered to them.
Despite these setbacks, one institution that has long stood for education, knowledge, and information for the public is the free press. While Americans depend upon accurate and objective reporting by the free press, the freedom of the press appears to be increasingly hampered both by President-elect Donald Trump’s disdain for the media and by technology that allows for the rapid spread of false information.
Trump’s distaste for the press was a focal point of his campaign for the presidency. His threat to “open up those libel laws,” as reported by Politico, endangers protections that journalists count on to report on current events and public figures. Since the election Trump hasn’t held a single press conference, though he finally announced that he would do so on December 15. (For comparison, CNN reports that both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush held press conferences within three days after the results of their elections.)
Rather than mediating his message through the press, Trump appears to prefer distributing information, which often turns out to be misinformation, through social media, namely Twitter. Journalists are then left to play catch-up to Trump’s outrageous claims, such as his tweet stating that “millions of people” voted illegally. Unfortunately, even when Trump’s tweets are debunked, the media’s reporting on what he has said tends to backfire by further spreading the misinformation. Rolling Stone, along with other commentators, are beginning to characterize American society as “post-fact,” warning that “these themes won’t be shaken by the fact-checkers, whom a lot of people believe to be hopelessly biased anyway.”
Part of the problem with mere fact-checking is that it engages with an issue or claim in a way that lends legitimacy, even if information surrounding that issue or claim is revealed to be false. For instance, in a string of tweets drawing from philosopher Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Twitter user Elliott Lusztig (@ezlusztig) explains why “fact-checking” the Nazi’s bigoted claims about Jews did not deter either the Nazis or the German people from their violent racism. “Nazi Jew hating was not a statement of fact but a declaration of intent…What the Nazis were doing was not describing what was true, but what would have to be true to justify what they planned to do next,” Lusztig tweeted, relating the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews with Trump’s threats against immigrants and Muslims.
To protect journalism under a Trump administration, reporters must commit to writing the truth, which goes beyond just fact-checking. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour urges her fellow journalists to commit to reporting not just on facts but also on values while refusing to normalize the hate and bigotry of the so-called “alt-right” that Trump’s campaign unleashed. To Amanpour, this dedication to the truth means “investigating wrongdoing, holding power accountable, enabling decent government, [and] defending basic rights.” A number of media outlets, including the Associated Press, the Guardian, and the New York Times, have decided such dedication must include descriptions of the “alt-right” that note its racist, anti-feminist, white supremacist views so that journalists don’t let bigots define conversations that our nation is having about race or gender.
For many journalists the facts speak for themselves. For example, the consensus among the scientific community on the facts of climate change or the age of our planet appears to be obvious, so media outlets may see no real harm in giving platforms to climate change deniers and to proponents of creationism and “intelligent design” if they’re accompanied by a ratings boost. In a CNN segment on the “alt-right,” anchor Jim Sciutto quoted one of the movement’s leaders, Richard Spencer, who questioned the humanity of Jewish people. CNN ran a chryon (the headline that appears on the lower part of the screen) sensationally reiterating the hateful, despicable racism of Spencer’s question. By presenting the humanity and human dignity of people as something that was up for questioning, CNN contributed to the normalization of racism and bigotry.
While some reporters often laud objective journalism as seeking input from all sides and not weighing in on the issues, now is the time for swift condemnation of lies, racism, sexism, hate speech, and other forms of bigotry. The humanist community should support journalists who are committed to this bold form of truth-telling, and we should also commit ourselves to telling the truth and calling out prejudice and hate when we see it. Freedom of the press is essential to our democracy, and in a society in which democracy is under threat, we must support the free press and other institutions that protect it.