That’s exactly the dilemma. We could even say that’s the trap. Anybody who wants to make news just needs to come up with some sort of claim like this and they can be relatively certain that journalists will use exactly that logic and help them publicize their claim. No matter what else they do with it the claim will be out there in the discourse. The real question in my mind then becomes whether news organizations decide that when something is definitively shown to be false, they’re just not going to cover it anymore. That would be a real redefinition of what news is. Because, as you said, if Donald Trump says it, then Donald Trump saying it is the story. That’s a certain way of doing journalism, to say that the news is what important and notable people say. There’s the rub.
We just had a symposium at the Manship School a couple of months ago, and Amy Walter of ABC was there and Dan Balz of The Washington Post was there. I asked them this very kind of question: What do you think of just not covering something because it’s not true? Amy’s response was, but that is the story. If somebody says it, it’s the story, and I have to cover it. And Dan Balz’s response was that you’re just assuming the media have way more power and authority than they really have in this day and age. End of discussion.
Playing devil’s advocate, is there a danger in pushing people to be stronger arbiters? If tomorrow everyone in the media reads this report and says we’re going to go the “substantive objectivity” route, would that enhance the polarization you spoke about before? It seems the place you see more of this kind of objectivity and people fact-checking claims is on ideological websites, where it is their task to swat down the lies—or truths—of the other side.
I think you’re on to something, and that is that we feel we don’t have a model for what this would look like. Because as soon as you suggest to most American journalists that they should engage in substantive objectivity, they immediately think of the scenario you just described. They think of ideologically motivated reporting or politically biased reporting. It’s almost as though we don’t have a model for imagining what this other kind of journalism would look like.
That’s fascinating, because it’s exactly in my view what PolitiFact, in particular, is practicing: trying to get to the factual truth as best they can and subjecting Barack Obama and Sarah Palin to the same scrutiny. We feel we’re at a loss for a model, and yet there are models. But somehow they haven’t caught on or don’t seem compelling enough in this economic climate. I’m not sure what the obstacle is.
The story I read on the report ends on a pretty dire note, citing research from Brendan Nyhan that suggests there is little to show that journalism can correct misinformation. Is that what you really think? That this is a hopeless situation.
Nyhan experimentally exposed people to corrections and found that they didn’t really make much difference. And, also, because of this problem of predispositions, people coming to a news story with their worldview already set, it’s going to be hard for mainstream journalism to shake that up and offset it. That’s probably too high to set the bar, to imagine you’re going to be able to persuade all the people who believe in death panels that they’re not true.
It also overestimates the size of that particular audience. That’s the audience that gets a lot of attention because that’s how cable news is figuring out how to be economically successful. I think what mainstream journalism has to do is figure out a clearer sense of their audience and a clearer sense of what they can bring to the table that cable news and ideological news can’t.
I wonder if there isn’t a bigger role for just hard-headed fact-checking. It appears to me that a lot of people would appreciate it. People on both sides of the aisle are going to try to swat it down and fight it at every turn. But those aren’t the only Americans out there.