When Pinocchio lied, his wooden nose grew longer. He had some ups and downs on the Island of Lost Boys, but got to be a real boy in the end. Charming story. And the source of the Pinocchio award for not telling the truth in politics. Earlier this week, Donald Trump earned four Pinocchios from Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post for falsehoods about unemployment rates.
I doubt anyone noticed.
Rick Perlstein had a nice piece on Meet The Press last week about the current dysfunction in journalism. Journalists are trained to see and report both sides. In the run-up to the last presidential election, this resulted in an avalanche of what in common parlance has become known as false equivalents. We all know about this. We all have our own opinions about what is false and what is equivalent. I won’t bore you, or try your patience, with mine.
But I will suggest this for your consideration: Truth, the brand, is losing value at an alarming rate. If I were in charge of making money selling truth, I would be panicked. I’d be calling in consultants. I’d be looking for a new marketing strategy. Truth has become dull. No one wants it anymore.
I went to a holiday party recently that was given by a Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford. Her home was full of practicing journalists who are serious students of journalism from all over the world. I didn’t talk to them all, but I found a consistent theme that was both inspiring and depressing: The job of journalists is not to take sides. It is to search for the truth in a professional, evenhanded way.
Good luck with that. The other team, Liars Inc., is not shackled by the ethical constraints of professional journalists. The noise they make drowns out the truth. The truth isn’t sexy. It isn’t sensational (not when presented responsibly). It rarely makes you want to turn to your friends or spouse and say, “See, I told you there was something funny going on there.”
Or, if it does, the immediate reply is, “Yeah, that’s what they say, but you know they are in that candidate’s pocket. You can’t trust them.”
Think of the truth as the organic cereal in a plain brown box at the end of the grocery shelf, hardly noticeable among the brightly colored boxes of sugar pops and fruit loops. The organic stuff even tastes like its box. Eating it is a chore. You think its good for you, but it’s no fun. Funny, how that box of flax-seed granola lasts so long in the pantry as the boxes of frosted flakes come and go.
Good journalism is consumed at about the same desultory rate as organic cereal. It’s there, in the same old Gray Lady packaging, but fewer and fewer reach for it.
Good journalism is in danger of becoming irrelevant. It doesn’t have our attention anymore. We’re not all listening to Walter Cronkite on the evening news. We’re reading and watching what we want to. We’re self-selecting, living in our own echo chambers. We’re not hearing the truth. It’s not even clear we want to.
So, if you’re peddling the truth—and let’s face it, even journalists and their editors have to sell their stories or there is no way to keep producing them—you’re in trouble. You’re revenues are shrinking. You can see the day, perhaps not too far off, when you won’t be able to keep speaking.
Let’s be honest: you have to change. Your journalistic standards are no longer enough. Not enough people seem to care about them, or even to trust them. You’re going to have to become guerrilla warriors for truth.
To that end, as a loyal consumer of what you are in the business of producing, I offer these modest suggestions (framed in the context of an election, since that is still seared into our psyches):
Deal with a lie the way you would a libel: Newspapers are legally liable if they repeat a libelous statement. So they are careful to independently confirm the truth of the statement. If they can’t, they don’t print it. This would be a good rule to follow when a candidate makes an outlandish claim.
Call out lies for what they are: Even if you aren’t publishing the lies, someone else will. At that point, it becomes your job to report that the candidate is lying. To ask why. To ask whether he can be trusted.
The assertion isn’t the news: There is a school of thought that the very fact that someone running for office says something is news. The idea is that if the statement is farcical, the candidate will be shown to be unserious and unworthy. But lately, that’s not the way the public is taking things. A disturbingly large percentage of the population wants to believe anything their candidate says. By repeating his (or her) every utterance, the press is not showing him to be a joke, they are giving him a megaphone.
Study the enemy: How do unreliable news sources spread their lies? Study their techniques. Emulate them. Get the balanced truth out there side-by-side with the lies. Don't relegate it to the fusty corners of small circulation newspapers and public radio.
Co-operate with other reliable news sources: Competition makes us great. But in war, we need allies. Election misinformation is war. Share sources and leads. Like an army, make yourself stronger by having more specialists and more running shoes on the ground.
Shake off your reticence. Don’t sit back and be overrun by fake news and lies (not to mention the Russians). This is a fight for survival. Not just for journalism, but for the Republic.