November 6, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

In a democracy, ‘lying isn’t supposed to be baked in’

Don’t wait for the Washington press corps to reform itself.

Screenshot via ABC News.
Screenshot via ABC News.

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There’s an aspect about Donald Trump that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I’m talking about his habitual incoherence. If you watch him during his campaign speeches, and I’m not recommending that you do, you’ll come across moments after which you’ll think: the hell was that?

I’ll let others go into the weeds as to what Trump says, or meant to say, or whatever, because for me, the point isn’t what he says or what he meant to say. The point is that none of that matters. It doesn’t matter that the GOP’s leading presidential candidate often makes no sense. 

Incoherence doesn’t matter because coherence doesn’t, and coherence doesn’t matter because Trump, with the assistance of the Republicans and the rightwing media apparatus, have obliterated the possibility of coherence. How? By assaulting supporters with nonstop lies.

“The mainstream news media is not going to save us. We’re going to have to save ourselves. Contribute money to good candidates. Join a phone bank. Knock on doors. Run for office yourself. But don’t wait for the media to reform itself. Because that may never happen.”

Think about it.

Does it matter what Trump says, or how he says it, when the information by which a Trump supporter might try to assess his coherence, or even his powers of persuasion, is based on a mountain of lies? No. And that’s because supporters don’t need to know. They don’t need to understand. All they need to do is believe in Dear Leader.

This fact about lying, and this fact alone, ought to be profoundly disturbing to those of us who care about truth – to those of us who prefer a society that operates according to the best of our knowledge.

According to veteran journalist Mark Jacob, “lying isn’t supposed to be baked in” a democracy. “It’s supposed to be an aberration. If it becomes standard operating procedure, our democracy is done. Yet so many Americans want rightwing charlatans to invent a reality for them.”

Mark is a former editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. He currently publishes Stop the Presses, “a weekly newsletter about how right-wing extremism has exploited the weaknesses in American journalism, and what we can do about it.” I started this interview by asking about what’s become of Twitter since the last time we talked. “I don’t think the vandalizing of Twitter was an accident,” he said.

JS: When we talked last, Twitter had been doing a pretty good job of democratizing journalism. Since then, rightwing billionaire Elon Musk has bought it, renamed it and wrecked it. To what extent are you concerned about the effect of its current state on the 2024 election?

MJ: I don’t think the vandalizing of Twitter was an accident. It was intended to make hoaxes easier to spread. It was intended to diminish the influence of fresh voices who gained attention merely on the merit of their viewpoints. Twitter is making itself less relevant as a place for news, and the problem is that no strong alternative has emerged. 

We have to diversify, however. I’m on Twitter, Threads, Post and Bluesky. I may join others. I subscribe to a handful of newspapers. I read a variety of newsletters. We need to tap into diverse sources for news, and then share the good stuff. We shouldn’t rely on Twitter. I would’ve worried more about Twitter’s negative impact on the next election if it had started its self-debasement in 2024 rather than in 2022 and 2023. Musk has given us time to develop escape plans.

JS: The Republicans have their own media apparatus, which is global in scale. It’s a safe place for them. Some argue that it’s backfiring, preventing them from seeing reality clearly. Are you as hopeful?

Yes, I think they are. And I think that’s a good thing. It’s why they bought the fantasy of the “red tsunami” in 2022 and have underestimated the power of the abortion issue since the Dobbs decision. It’s why they say increasingly outrageous things, like suggesting the termination of the Constitution, the execution of General Mark Milley and the shooting of suspected shoplifters. 

Their rhetoric has exposed the sad fact that a large segment of the American public is receptive to hate and hoaxes. But that segment isn’t the majority, and I’m hopeful that more voters will jump off the clown car before it hurtles off the cliff. The rise of MAGA fascism has been extremely depressing, but I believe that if the public is forced to face up to the fact that Republicans want to ban books and “slit the throats” of federal workers as they say, the fascists will lose support. I say “face up to the facts” because it’s the job of the news media to tell the public what it needs to know: Republicans are a threat to democracy.

JS: Fox’s Sean Hannity lobbied for Jim Jordan’s failed speaker bid. Will that get respectable journalists to stop treating Fox as legit news?

Unfortunately, no. In the Dominion lawsuit, Fox higher-ups got caught putting lies on the air when they knew they were lies. The revelations in that case told everyone that Fox is a rightwing disinformation op, not journalism. It cost Fox $787 million, but it didn’t kill Fox. 

I wrote a story for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard about how journalism schools were treating Fox in the wake of the Dominion lawsuit revelations. I was disappointed to learn that j-schools had no intention of severing their ties with Fox. The two main reasons: academic freedom and the need for their graduates to get jobs. 

I don’t understand why any journalism school would be proud to place graduates at a propaganda outlet. As for academic freedom, we don’t let people come into our medical schools and teach prospective doctors that drinking Clorox cures Covid, do we? I think a lot of prominent journalists are fooling themselves into thinking that Fox is simply a news outlet that reports from a conservative viewpoint. 

If that were true, I wouldn’t denounce Fox. But the fact is that Fox lies to help the enemies of democracy. Fox lies about energy policy. Fox lies about crime. Fox lies about immigration. How many times a day does Fox refer to Biden’s supposed “open borders” policy when more than 2 million people were apprehended at the southern border last year alone? The border is not open, but Fox keeps saying it is.

JS: You said: “The most dangerous characteristic of Americans is tolerance for liars.” Can you expand on that? A lot of lying these days. 

MJ: I just wrote more about that subject in my new newsletter, Stop the Presses. The piece is headlined “Fact-checking isn’t enough. We need fact-crusading.” As a former daily newspaper editor who woke up in a sweat at 2 in the morning worrying that we’d spelled someone’s name wrong in the paper, I have no patience for people who don’t care about the facts. When Trump first rose to political prominence and I denounced him as a liar on social media, an old college pal argued with me, claiming that all presidents lied as much as Trump. Not only was that flatly untrue, but it displayed an acceptance of lying that’s antithetical to a functioning democracy. Lying isn’t supposed to be baked in. It’s supposed to be an aberration. If it becomes standard operating procedure, our democracy is done. Yet so many Americans want rightwing charlatans to invent a reality for them.

JS: Media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen said recently: “I would like to see the mainstream press take the opportunity to become more explicitly and aggressively pro-democracy, pro-participation, pro-voting.” This sounds like the easiest thing, but it’s not. Why?

MJ: People need to understand that most news outlets are primarily motivated by money. If they get a big audience, they can charge more money for advertising and subscriptions. And how do they get a big audience? Sometimes by avoiding harsh facts that might make some viewers mad. Sometimes by letting a serial liar like Donald Trump come on the network and then treating him gently so he’ll come back. 

It’s the access game. As I wrote in my newsletter, “It’s not that most mainstream news organizations are anti-democratic – it’s that they seem frighteningly neutral on the question.” Sorry to keep quoting myself, but I also wrote: “I worry that when it comes time for the fascists to frog-march journalists out of the newsroom at gunpoint, the journalists will compete for the exclusive rights to cover it.” 

The mainstream news media is not going to save us. We’re going to have to save ourselves. Contribute money to good candidates. Join a phone bank. Knock on doors. Run for office yourself. But don’t wait for the media to reform itself. Because that may never happen.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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