In the spring of 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower told an elaborate lie. An American U-2 plane, part of a CIA mission to spy on the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile program, was detected by Russian officers and brought down near the town of Sverdlovsk (known today as Yekaterinburg). The fate of the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was unknown. He was presumed dead. (CIA pilots carried poison pills.) The administration fed a story to the press, by way of a nasa statement, printed in full in the New York Times on Friday, May 6. The plane was “part of a continuing program to study gust meteorological conditions,” the statement read. The pilot “is a civilian employed by the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.” A front-page article summarized the situation: “The plane was flying at an altitude of 55,000 feet, making weather observations over the Lake Van area of Turkey.” To assure reporters, the government disguised a U-2 plane with nasa markings and distributed photos. By Sunday, however, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, revealed (“jubilantly,” per the Times) that his agents had captured Powers, who would be tried for espionage in Moscow.
Soon, Eisenhower’s presidency was over, and an increasing number of Americans lost faith in things that once felt sure: the trustworthiness of the White House, for one, as well as the press. In the decades since, journalists and public officials have negotiated a difficult relationship, rife with intrigue, problematic friendships, and outright distortion. Richard Nixon’s presidency gave us the problem of “the media,” as William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter, attested in Before the Fall (1975): “The press became ‘the media’ because the word had a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation.” That was before Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and Q. It was also before Donald Trump popularized the phrase “fake news” and his favorite journalist-insult, “enemy of the people.” Trust in American institutions is down even more, these days; confidence in the press has dropped precipitously. Michael Schudson helpfully laid out the context in a piece last year for CJR on “The Fall, Rise, and Fall of Media Trust,” in which he asked the question: “Has a healthy skepticism become a civically disabling cynicism?”
The answer becomes important when news breaks and nobody knows what to think. In the early hours of Friday morning, Trump tweeted that he and his wife, Melania, had tested positive for covid-19; the press sprang awake, and restless sleepers began scrolling through the coverage. Much of it was speculative—the sort of stuff that might make your head hit the pillow until morning, awaiting something more concrete. Another response, voiced on Twitter, was disbelief—suggestions that Trump was faking an illness in order to elicit sympathy, disrupt the election, or reap some other twisted benefit. The comments came, in many cases, from respected journalists—even as their colleagues were posting links to their articles about Trump’s diagnosis. Jacob Weisberg—the cofounder, with Malcolm Gladwell, of the audio production company Pushkin Industries—chimed in, “When it comes to the President’s condition and prognosis, I’ll believe it when I hear it from Dr. Fauci.”
Still, there are realities, and they can be confirmed offline. It may take a few hours—a few years, even, if you count cultivating sources—but facts can be obtained, written about, and discussed.
The result was disorienting. Waking up, one received a mixed message—a contingent that typically stands up for journalism was arguing that the latest coverage was to be taken with a grain of salt; that, really, you can’t believe everything you read; that since Trump lies, stories about what he says are inherently suspect. The implicit assumption was that breaking-news reporting is sketchy and sourced primarily from Twitter. Which, yes, is sometimes true. Still, there are realities, and they can be confirmed offline. It may take a few hours—a few years, even, if you count cultivating sources—but facts can be obtained, written about, and discussed. That’s the premise of journalism, anyway—no less so when official sources of information, from the president on down, are mendacious.
The Trump administration is so deeply mired in delusion that it can be difficult to engage with in any meaningful way. Politicians are always campaigning; Trump’s head is underwater in a swimming pool of Diet Coke–logic that’s being filled by Fox News. His most enthusiastic devotees are racist conspiracy theorists; his greatest challengers must, too, be armed with a willingness to believe that conspiracy is afoot. After all, under Eisenhower, nasa painted over a reconnaissance plane with a phony serial number; Trump World brings the possibility of plots far weirder. But that doesn’t mean we should be so overcome by doubt that coverage becomes moot. That’s exactly what Trump wants, isn’t it? He sows distrust and confusion—with the occasional help of Russian operatives—in order to throw us off and capitalize on the paralysis of our collective uncertainty.
Stories might be wrong, facts mistaken. Sincerity is all. In the lead-up to what may be the most important American election in over a century, reasoned reporting is essential. Skepticism and verification are part of the process, if done right. One hopes that the results have impact. They can’t if we’re all so wary—and so weary—that we undermine ourselves.Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.