Nation & World

Pursuing veritas in a ‘post-truth’ era

8 min read

Media officials probe the erosion of their influence and the clouded future of news

For the beleaguered news media, it can seem the worst of times, and sometimes the best of them.

The tumultuous 2016 election set record television ratings and spurred subscription jumps for many news organizations. But the election also deepened the disdain and skepticism that many Americans feel toward the mainstream media, with President Trump leading almost-daily attacks on the credibility of news outlets and individual reporters who don’t cover him to his satisfaction.

Faced with a Washington administration intent on trying to script news coverage to its aims, and a growing audience dismissive of stories that contradict its views, top reporters and editors from major news outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and The Boston Globe, convened at Harvard on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the lessons learned, the challenges ahead, and the fresh opportunities that may accompany “the post-truth era.”

In convening the event, alongside the Shorenstein Center and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Harvard President Drew Faust noted the important parallels between the University and the press in the pursuit of truth, or veritas.

“Like journalists, we regard facts as the necessary foundation for human decision-making and human progress, in the policies of governments, in the discoveries of science, [and] in the lives of individuals, societies, and nations. Yet we now confront what has been called a ‘post-truth’ era, one in which evidence, critical thinking, and analysis are pushed aside in favor of emotion and intuition as bases for action and judgment,” Faust told an overflow crowd at Sanders Theatre.

William Kristol, ’73, Ph,D. ’79, a veteran conservative commentator and editor at large for The Weekly Standard, told the crowd that he’s “still optimistic” about the future of journalism. He blamed the craft’s current state of flux on the rise of social media, which has amplified a greater diversity of voices and opinions than ever before, yet has, in turn, diminished journalism’s authority as a gatekeeper. He also blamed Trump’s often confrontational stance and “demagoguery,” and cited the media’s relative weakness in being able to sway the public’s political sentiments.

Panelists Gerard Baker, editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal, Lydia Polgreen, editor in chief of The Huffington Post, and David Leonhardt, op-ed columnist for The Times, agreed that the democratization of news has eroded some of journalism’s clout and punctured its fragile economics, but they said that didn’t create the current conditions, and they suggested that, in the long run, social media will be a plus for journalism.

Leonhardt said “asymmetric partisanship” has fueled a distrust of facts among many Trump supporters, while Baker argued that a broader erosion of trust in every institution except the military has been an important factor in the emerging post-factualism.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is a collapse of empathy in journalism,” said Polgreen, discussing why so many members of the media were surprised by Trump’s victory. “Journalism has become a highly elite profession that feels extremely distant from the experiences of the people who we write about.”

Still, the hand-wringing over coastal elite reporters who seemingly ignored rural, blue-collar whites may be somewhat misplaced.

“The problem wasn’t that we didn’t write about them; it’s that we didn’t write for them,” Polgreen said, noting too many news outlets chase the same highly educated, affluent readers and don’t speak to other audiences. “Journalism needs to rediscover its roots as a blue-collar profession and find a way to get back in touch with empathic storytelling.”

Brian Stelter, senior media correspondent for CNN and host of the show “Reliable Sources,” a media roundtable, said this is an exciting and historic time for journalists. Though the profession came under heavy, sometimes deserved criticism after the election and has been an endless target of the Trump team’s effort to delegitimize it, the future of news is open-ended and still can be shaped by those willing to get into the game.

Stelter disputed the idea that because the new administration appears willing to traffic in “daily falsehoods, daily deflections,” journalism’s truth-seeking role is irrelevant. He cited the soaring network ratings, the spike in subscriptions to traditional outlets such as The Atlantic, The Times, and The Washington Post as proof of journalism’s ongoing utility. He also mentioned the hundreds of emails that have been arriving daily from viewers urging CNN, and journalists more broadly, to fight efforts to delegitimize news as proof there’s still strong public demand for high-quality journalism that holds the powerful accountable.

“It’s only a ‘post-truth’ world if we in this room let it be a ‘post-truth’ world,” he said, and if “a lot of us give up on truth.”

Nonetheless, faced with a president who calls journalism the “opposition party,” Stelter warned that the news business should start planning for “worst-case scenarios” such as “how this government could use the power of the state to punish truth-telling journalism and tamp down on dissent and shame critics.”

“Let’s not hesitate to talk about the storm clouds of authoritarianism” forming in these first weeks of a new presidency.

Indeed, one way to start to win back public trust is to think carefully about the language that journalists use, especially when covering an unconventional leader like Trump.

Recently, Baker was widely criticized for saying he’s hesitant to use the word “lie” to describe Trump’s false statements and for instructing his staff to avoid using “loaded” terms such as “majority-Muslim countries” and “Muslim ban” to describe the recent executive order issued limiting travel from seven mainly Muslim countries in the Middle East.

“To say that something is a lie requires a knowledge of the state of knowledge of the person when he said that thing, and also a state of knowledge of the moral intent of the person, that it was an intent to deceive. That’s an incredibly high bar for reporting,” said Baker.

“What we can do, what we should do, and what we have done repeatedly is, if Donald Trump, or anyone else for that matter, says something, we can say ‘this is not true; it’s false.’”

Polgreen said the issue is not about semantics, but power.

“The administration is setting the terms and setting the language with which we’re talking about a highly, highly contentious, unorthodox issue that is deeply emotive and gets right to the core of our identity as a country. To simply and, I think, blithely use that language without interrogating it and without saying ‘this is really a fundamental shift,’ to me feels problematic,” she said.

“I think that’s our job as journalists, not to accept the language that’s given to us by those in power, but to interrogate it at every turn.”

Nieman curator Ann Marie Lipinski said that many people outside of journalism don’t understand why reporters still interview and quote administration staff, surrogates, and others who have lied to them in the past. “Why are we still talking to these people?” she said they ask.

“We have never had a president or an administration that has been as comfortable promulgating falsehoods as this one in its first 10 days,” said Leonhardt. “It is qualitatively different from the Obama administration and the Bush administration.”

He agreed that news outlets should be cautious labeling something a lie. But since ignoring the president or his top aides is not a realistic option in news coverage, print, television, and other outlets need to decide on their own how best to address false statements.

“I think the key is to remember that if you are putting the falsehood out there and then saying in the sixth paragraph, ‘it’s false,’ you’re not doing your job. A headline that says ‘Trump calls for voter fraud investigation’ does a disservice to journalism,” he suggested, since it doesn’t record the absence of evidence of such fraud.

To help bridge the trust gap between much of the public and the media, Polgreen said journalists must get out and engage more with people in a way that forges bonds. But the public has to do its part, too, she said.

“We’ve been through this period where there has been this abdication, where people are going about their lives and not really thinking about their role in civic life,” she said. “It’s not on journalism to fix that. We can help get there, but it’s not our job to fix it. We just need to renew that social compact.”