Trust in news sources has been plummeting for a long time now, but recent events promise to make it sink it to new depths.
Let’s take the lab leak theory, which suggests the origin of COVID-19 was a Chinese laboratory, not a nearby wet market. After Sen. Tom Cotton mentioned the idea on Fox News last year, The Washington Post referred to his comments as a “debunked” “conspiracy theory.” The article has since been updated with a correction, which is more than the demagogues do when they mess up. But rather than fully copping to their mistake, they are now calling Cotton’s comments a “fringe theory.” As of three weeks ago, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight puts the odds of a lab leak being the culprit at 60 percent. Maybe Silver is part of the problem, too, but does anyone think of that as a “fringe” theory?
Or let’s take the now-debunked story about how, as NPR breathlessly declared, “Peaceful Protesters Tear-Gassed To Clear Way For Trump Church Photo-Op.” Of course, you can’t blame them. This is how The New York Times sold it: “Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church.” We now know that an Interior Department inspector general’s report found that this did not, in fact, happen. Sure, Trump still did and said lots of other horrible things (including aggressive rhetoric about wanting governors to use troops to “dominate the streets”), but protesters weren’t cleared just so he could hold that skeevy photo-op.
This false narrative greatly colored coverage of what happened, not just in stories directly about tear-gassing, but also in subsequent stories about the invocation of martial law. It possibly even contributed to other, more costly, mistakes. Take, for example, a Washington Post report from Jan. 5, in which Pentagon officials “emphasized that the [National] Guard wouldn’t carry firearms, use armored vehicles or helicopters, or receive backup from units in other states—a far more muted presence than in June after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd,” in Washington, DC, the following day.
Now, here’s where I cop to some complicity but also explain why these types of errors infuriate me. After buying into this established narrative, here’s how yours truly wrote about this incident: “While cameras were on hand for his address, Trump had the police use flashbangs and tear gas to clear peaceful protesters from nearby Lafayette Park. This was abusive and immoral. What is more, it was done just so that he could stage a photo op in front of St. John’s Church…” I’m mad because I was complicit in passing along false information, which damages my credibility.
Demagogues benefit from the waters being muddied—from everybody looking a little bit tarnished. Simultaneously, mainstream news outlets have taken the bait, with some respected reporters eschewing “objectivity-obsessed, both-sides journalism,” in favor of activism and, supposedly, calling it like it is. And how has that worked out? Trump derangement syndrome caused too many of us to reflexively distrust everything he said, and our glancing blows redounded to his advantage.
It also shifted the burden of proof. Reporters no longer get the benefit of the doubt. When the media says that the 2020 election was fair, what’s to stop people from thinking, “Well, they say now—but what will they say after the Arizona audit comes out?”
I don’t want to harp too much on Trump, because he didn’t start the fire, and his exodus won’t smother it. Indeed, without the clicks and ratings and “sugar high” he provided, news outlets have been busy searching for new bullshit to get eyeballs and clicks. This is part of why we're having a big UFO media cycle right now.
It is true that the media, unlike the demagogues, will usually retract or correct a story if it’s proven wrong. But in a world where a lie is halfway around the world before Trump gets his pants on backwards (also fake news!), that’s an awfully low bar.
For the sake of democracy, we can do better. We have to do better.