How should we think about the role of journalism in what some call a “post-fact” era? How do changes involving the media and the ways Americans get their news affect democracy and its prospects in America?
We should, I think, begin by rejecting the idea that we are “post-fact.” That phrase is, I take it, a bit of hyperbole meant to highlight the apparent increase of misleading, false, often partisan, or self-interested claims, and outright “fake news,” circulating in our politics and popular media. Deliberately fabricated falsehoods are indeed often planted either to sway opinion or to undermine confidence in the reliability of all media sources (though sometimes the motive may be only amusement). Examples include the Pope’s supposed endorsement of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.
In order to preserve our ability to recognize and accurately name abuses of the truth, we must not concede that facts are a thing of the past.
Of course, “facts” are often not easy to nail down. So, it cannot be quite right to say that even the finest newspapers or news organizations are “fundamentally, comprehensively and exclusively factual. And therefore trustworthy,” as conservative columnist Bret Stephens urged in a scathing critique of President Trump.
I take it, nevertheless, that when people like Stephens refer to the importance of “facts” in current discussions of journalism, they are using this as a shorthand for intellectual integrity: the attempt to get things right via conscientious regard for evidence and argument, openness to criticism and revision, and fairness in presenting opposing reasonable points of view. As Stephens also said, quoting former Wall Street Journal publisher Peter R. Kann, “We believe facts are facts and that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded, and diligent reporting. … News, in short, is not merely a matter of views. And truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.”
In her excellent Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton in Fall 2016, Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes located the source of our trust in science in the practices, institutions, and values that make up the scientific enterprise. The same is true for scholarship generally and also journalism. When working well, these enterprises can and do yield, not “comprehensive” or “final” truth, but relatively reliable information, because their findings are the product of careful investigation, subject to ongoing critical scrutiny, correction, and improved understanding. All of these are, in turn, supported by practices and institutions that have come to acquire a measure of professional and public confidence over time.
These are values that journalists and academics share: the values of intellectual honesty. These virtues are often not easy to achieve, even under favorable circumstances, and they seem in increasingly short supply in our public lives in recent years, to the point that many see democracy itself at risk.
Why is that?
One obvious reason is that America now has a president who seems bent precisely on undermining the norms of intellectual honesty, as well as public confidence in many of the institutions designed to elevate democracy by holding it — and him — accountable to reason, serious argument, and evidence.
Lest it be thought that I am simply falling prey to the usual left-leaning academic biases, I again cite the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, who points out that Bill O’Reilly earlier this year asked the president about criticisms that he makes claims that cannot be “backed up factually,” such as that “3 million illegal aliens” voted in the last election. Trump’s response was that “Many people have come out and said that I’m right.” We should not, says Stephens, interpret Trump’s response as “dumb,” but rather as “darkly brilliant”: Trump is “saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts … don’t matter … they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.”
Which is another way of saying that might makes right. He who wins the day wins the argument. And Trump has thrived in politics in spite of — or is it because of? — his willingness to say things in flagrant disregard of truth and decency. Stephens’ list includes: Trump’s “slander against Mexican immigrants … his slur about John McCain’s record as a POW … his lie about New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11 … his unwavering praise of Vladimir Putin … his refusal to release his tax returns [or medical records], or the sham that seems to been perpetrated on the saps who signed up for his Trump U courses …,” etc.
But Donald Trump is only one force putting at risk the virtues of intellectual honesty in our public life. Two other facts about our public lives and institutions also matter: Our politics is intensely polarized, and the media landscape is impoverished. So, while holding accountable a political leader like Donald Trump could never be easy, the challenge now is especially great.
Consider partisan polarization. An increasing number of people have become more consistent in their ideological orientations — that sounds good, their political views seem more ideologically coherent — but they have also become intense in their antagonism toward rival views and dismissive of information that challenges their partisan commitments.
Republicans and Democrats have pulled further apart, not only in their political views and preferences, but in their perceptions of people on the other side. There is a greater “tendency of people on the left and right to associate primarily with like-minded people, to the point of actively avoiding those who disagree,” and this is closely related to increased partisan antipathy. Sixty-three percent of consistently conservative Americans, and about half of consistently liberal Americans, say that most of their close friends share their political views. They are more likely to disapprove of inter-partisan marriages, which are in decline. Forty-three percent of Republicans and 72 percent of consistent conservatives view the Democratic Party very unfavorably, and most of those (36 percent of Republicans) say that the Democratic Party’s policies are so misguided as to be a threat to the nation’s wellbeing (the comparable figure among Democrats is 27 percent who view Republicans as a threat to America’s wellbeing — about 25 percent less). And those figures are from 2014: before Trump’s rise.
Americans are more likely to live in ideologically homogeneous places than in the past. The most politically engaged and active Americans are the most divided. And these divisions have all increased markedly in the last 20 years.
These divisions shape political perceptions and judgments: How people understand the actual state of the economy — the rate of unemployment or growth — is heavily influenced by whether they share a party affiliation with the incumbent president.
Republicans have become more pro-Russian: Indeed more than twice as many express a high opinion of Vladimir Putin as do so for Barack Obama.
Finally, how about this poll question: “Do you think an elected official who commits an immoral act in their private life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life?”
The public as a whole has shifted in the “yes” direction by 17 percent (from 44 percent in 2011 to 61 percent in 2016). But the most dramatic differences are across partisan and religious lines. The increase was double the national average among Republicans. Most astonishingly, in 2011, only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed private misconduct was consistent with performance of political duties, but in 2016 that number soared to 72 percent: a difference of 42 percent in five years, and on a matter that would seem highly salient for evangelicals.
It seems that partisanship now trumps religion and ethics.
Needless to say, Americans also get their news from different places: Liberals get their news from a variety of media sources; ideological conservatives distrust most news sources and cluster around Fox News, with nearly half saying it is their main source for news about government and politics.
My own viewing during the campaign confirms what the research shows: that Americans live in alternative realities defined by partisanship, and these divide us deeply and encourage increasing partisan antagonism and political extremism. Fundamental democratic norms are under threat, including accepting election results (which Donald Trump refused to say he would do), and the values associated with a loyal opposition. Trump and his supporters called repeatedly for Hillary Clinton to be locked up, and the candidate even toyed with encouraging violence. The president describes the news media as “enemies of the American people,” a phrase associated with Stalin.
This is all in sharp contrast with the situation during our last really great constitutional crisis, Watergate, when the parties were much closer together and the news media was much healthier.
What about the media environment? The newspaper workforce has shrunk by nearly 40 percent — or 20,000 positions — in just the last 20 years. Newspaper circulations and revenue have also shrunk, and print circulation still far outstrips online news reading. Research published in 2007 suggested that only one in six 18- to 30-year-olds read newspapers daily. The number of newspapers has also declined precipitously.
Television remains the leading news source for most Americans: at 55 percent, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, compared with 21 percent for the internet, only 9 percent reporting print as their primary news source, and 6 percent radio. But television newsrooms have also been slashed.
And the performance of much of the broadcast media in the recent election was terrible. It has now been widely reported that in 2016, all three major network news broadcasts combined had something like 36 minutes of issues coverage as opposed to candidate coverage. The Tyndall Report, which monitors all three major network news broadcasts nightly, defines issues coverage as that which “takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy.” As recently as 2008, the three-network total was three hours and forty minutes of issues coverage. In 2016, as Andrew Tyndall puts it, there was, “No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits. To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates’ terms, not on the networks’ initiative.”
It is easy to say that people now have — online — many more sources of “information” than in the past, and of course that is true. But so much of it is infotainment, gossip, and worse: There is so far no substitute for the news organizations, including newspapers, wire services, and broadcast journalism, that have funded serious reporting, writing, editing, and dissemination of news.
Thank goodness, you might say, we still have public broadcasting. But while the PBS NewsHour, for example, does report on important events, serious policy analysis during the campaign was often meager, with far more time devoted to “political analysis,” or coverage of the “horse race.”
Shields and Brooks (or Brooks’ various predecessors) have long given us political analysis on Fridays, but now we get it as a regular feature as well on “Politics Mondays,” with the younger and more earnest Tamara Keith and Amy Walter.
During the campaign, local newspaper editors from various parts of the country appeared regularly to tell us what “people like us” around the county were feeling about the election, and historians told us how we used to feel about elections. When policy was debated and discussed in 2016, it was too often by partisan advocates rather than policy experts.
On the NewsHour, as elsewhere, truth seeking was too often only fact-checking, and objectivity was too often reduced to giving equal time to both sides, irrespective of the merits of the contributions.
But surely, one might now ask, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the news media is waking up? Perhaps, but not all the signs have been good.
Consider the NewsHour’s broadcast the day after the election, on Wednesday, Nov. 9. Judy Woodruff asked “how the mainstream media missed Trump’s momentum.” She briskly pointed out that the NewsHour only reports polls, and does not run its own. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan confessed that, “we missed the overarching story to a large extent.” Steve Deace, a conservative Midwestern radio host opposed to Trump, asked how many people in “the newsroom here right now at PBS … are pro-life? How many of them go to church or to mass once a week?” There is, he said, a “huge lack of ideological and cultural diversity in our newsrooms.” New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg agreed, adding only that the press’ disconnect is psychological not geographic: There are plenty of Trump supporters on Long Island (not to mention Staten Island). Woodruff affirmed that “we have strived, I think, in newsrooms for years to become … more like America, to be more diverse,” but we have missed “a whole chunk of the country.”
But this handwringing about reporters’ geographical and demographic diversity does not get us to the heart of the problem. It reflects an admirable concern with diversity and inclusion, but misses the core mission of what should be a premier national news resource. After all, why should anyone care, or care very much, whether the media predicted the election results? Especially if the network in question doesn’t run polls. Few experts predicted a Trump victory: The election was in fact close, and polling on a state-by state basis is poor.
The central problem is this: Since when is the central role of journalists to predict election results, or to somehow figure out what the public is thinking? Even if the NewsHour employed more people from the right parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and more accurately predicted the election results, that would leave the public uninformed about the nature and causes of the problems confronting America and the possible policy responses.
Horse-race journalism makes shallow expertise a substitute for the kind of debate over policy and substance that elections should, in substantial part, be about. What is sadly missing here is recognition of how thin some journalists’ conception of their own role has become.
I say “some journalists” advisedly. Across the country and around the world, many journalists do extremely important and often dangerous work in uncovering information and exposing abuses that the powerful seek to hide and deny. Journalists often do this work in environments that make their jobs ever more difficult and demanding. They are among the insufficiently sung heroes of democracy.
Thomas Jefferson famously remarked that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Not only capable of reading, but willing to read and pay for what they read. The decline of our institutionalized news media is not owing to the decline of news but rather the interest and attention of citizens. For several years, the best televised news channel in the United States was Al Jazeera America, but cable stations didn’t carry it and Americans didn’t demand it (or perhaps even watch it where it was available). It seemed never to generate paid advertising. Its demise was a loss to American democracy that no one seemed to notice.
There are signs of rising news viewership and increased seriousness among some journalists. There is renewed support, and even some bipartisan support, for the essential role of journalists in a democracy. In February, Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday chided White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, saying that President Obama never called right wing media outlets “enemies of the American people.” And that same month former President George W. Bush sounded almost Jeffersonian: “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy,” Bush told Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show. “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive.”
Well, maybe there is still hope!
 Bret Stephens, “Don't Dismiss President Trump's Attacks on the Media as Mere Stupidity,” Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA, Time online, Feb. 26, 2017. http://time.com/4675860/donald-trump-fake-news-attacks/
 See also Dean Starkman, “The Tragedy of Peter Kann: A devoted son of Dow Jones brings down the company,” Columbia Journalism Review, online: http://archives.cjr.org/the_audit/the_tragedy_of_peter_kann.php
 See Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016).
 Pew Research Center, “Political Polarization in the American Public, Section 3: Political Polarization and Personal Life,” June 12, 2014, http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-3-political-polarization-and-personal-life/
 Pew Research Center, “Political Polarization in the American, Section 2: Growing Partisan Antipathy,” June 12, 2014 http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-2-growing-partisan-antipathy/
 Matthew Nussbaum and Benjamin Oreskes, “More Republicans viewing Putin favorably GOP sympathies for Putin and his homeland are rising,” Politico, December 16, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/gop-russia-putin-support-232714
 Jones, Robert P., and Daniel Cox. “Clinton maintains double-digit lead (51 percent vs. 36 percent) over Trump.” PRRI. 2016. http://www.prri.org/research/prri-brookings-oct-19-poll-politics-electio...
 Drew DeSilver, “5 key takeaways on politics, media and polarization,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 21, 2014, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/10/21/5-key-takeaways-on-politics-media-and-polarization/
 Young People and News, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University, July 2007 https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/young_people_and_news_2007.pdf
 Alexander Nazaryan, “TV Still Rules News Media, and Almost Nobody Reads the Papers Anymore,” The Atlantic, July 8, 2013 https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/07/tv-still-rules-news-media-and-almost-nobody-reads-papers-anymore/313216/
 Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, Jan. 16, 1787, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 11:48—49. See: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_speechs8.html