There's More News Than Ever, But That Doesn't Mean The Truth Is Breaking Through
Updated June 3, 2021 at 11:30 AM ET
The Declaration of Independence says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Those truths the founders were talking about are at the core of American democracy — that all people are created equal, that they have certain inherent rights, that governments get their power from the people they serve.
But what happens when the people aren't united in a shared set of facts — when "truth" isn't evident or agreed upon?
As part of NPR's We Hold These Truths series exploring American democracy and how citizens participate in it, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been digging into the role of the press at this moment in our democracy.
In the past year, discussions about facts and truth have sprung up not only in the context of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and after former President Trump refused to concede the 2020 election, but also during the pandemic as disinformation ricocheted around the internet.
At the same time, trust and confidence in the mass media has been on the decline. In 2020, 60% of those polled told Gallup they had very little or no trust in the mass media. Back in the 1970s, when CBS' Lesley Stahl was covering the Watergate scandal, that figure was almost reversed: about 70% of Americans had confidence in the mass media.
"We're in this moment where people can really just go and seek out what they want to hear," NPR's Ayesha Rascoe says. "And there are people who are more than willing to tell them what they want to hear. ... You have more access to information, but not necessarily to the truth."
That got us wondering. Will we ever share a common set of facts again? What's the role of the press in defining a set of fundamental truths? And what happens when the mainstream media isn't trusted by millions of Americans?
We put some of these big questions about the media and democracy to three people who have been covering this tumultuous past year: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, CNN anchor Jake Tapper and CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl. They spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about disinformation, building trust with audiences and giving airtime to guests with spotty records with the truth. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.
On covering Donald Trump and his false claims about election fraud
Lesley Stahl: People, whatever we do, are seeing things so much through their own prism. If the president says, "I never said that," and we put up the video of him saying that, the public who is on his side will still tell you he didn't say that. So it's a really tough question: What should we be doing? My personal thought is you just put your head down and tell the story as faithfully as you can.
You either give in to the fact that media today is going to have an opinion, state your opinion and report from that aspect, period — and my daughter is telling me people her age, so 40 and younger, want that. They want to know what you think. They don't want to just hear you tell us that you're in the middle; they don't buy that. So say, "he lied," [or] "didn't lie." Just do it. Because honestly, I'm having trouble threading us out of where we are.
Jake Tapper: First of all, it's not like Donald Trump started lying on election night. And I think that the news media struggled with how to figure out how to describe what he was doing for quite some time. For me, fact checking things he said that weren't true became insufficient when, in May 2016, he falsely started suggesting that Ted Cruz's father had a hand in the Kennedy assassination. And that was a moment for me where I just went on air and said, "That's not an anti-Trump position or a pro-Cruz position. It's a pro-truth position." I have been trying to report from that perspective, that clearly, since. Which also entails, by the way, meaning you don't take anybody's word for anything. ... And I'm not trying to appease CNN viewers or appeal to them. All you can do is tell the news and share the news and give the facts and hope that people will just respect that.
On building trust with audiences
Ayesha Rascoe: During the Trump administration, there was this tension of trying to make sure that, yes, what he said mattered, but that doesn't mean that you had to parrot what he said unchallenged.
One thing that I do want to say is even when the idea that the media was being unbiased, they were coming from a certain perspective. So neutral statements like, "Well, the police said this, therefore it is true." That's not really a neutral statement. And in this moment, when you have communities that even back [before Trump took office], did not trust the media because they felt like they were not represented, they were not spoken to.
So this is something that goes beyond the Trump issue. And I think if we come out of this moment and it's only focused on Trump voters versus non-Trump voters and not looking at the fact that there were seeds of this in communities that felt like they couldn't trust the government, that they couldn't trust the media, I think you miss a whole big part of this country and where some of this distrust is coming from.
On giving airtime to people in power with a track record of flouting the truth
Tapper: It's more a question, which is: "If I know that you will lie about the election and vote that way, if I know you have such disdain for facts and truth that you're willing to buy all of these crazy accusations, then what else won't you lie about?"
Stahl: My mind is racing around thinking, "No value? Is that possible?" If our job is to persuade people, then we're never going to be believed or trusted. These questions are so difficult. And so at the heart of where we are right now in this country, as we all despair for the future of a democratic press, the freedom of the press: If nobody's believing us, what's our value?
On whether there's hope for the future of the press in American democracy
Stahl: We all know that, even the founding fathers understood that, at least in our system, having the press as a cleansing agent is vital. And so when you ask these questions, they are nearly impossible to answer. If people aren't coming from the same place they believe you're coming from, they may never believe you. You initially asked us, "Can we unthread this?" And my answer is: I'm not sure.
Rascoe: I think there is a hope because these conversations are happening, people are grappling with it. And I think that is a good thing.
And I think that even during the Trump years, a lot of people learned about political journalism, learned about journalism in general and saw the power of it. And so I think there was a younger generation that was inspired by it and that there will be people that will come up, who will say they saw journalists during those times that inspired them to go into it.
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