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January 20, 2021

Journalism after Trump: Why facts are now more important than arguments

By Alan Rusbridger

That’s what happens when you flood the zone with shit.

The vivid phrase has been attributed to Steve Bannon, President Trump’s pound store Svengali. It is as it sounds: a conscious decision by those in power (or who want power) to swamp an entire society with rubbish.

“The real opposition is the media,” Bannon is reported to have said in 2018. His answer was to saturate the digital space with misinformation, thereby overwhelming the media’s ability to act as traditional gatekeepers.

Instead of manufactured consent, we have ended up with what Vox’s Sean Illing has called “manufactured nihilism”  – not so much a denial of truth in the public at large as a growing weariness at even the possibility of finding it.

Trump’s deliberate and repeated delegitimising of the best of journalism  – “the New York Times is fake news” – had a transparent purpose. If he could persuade enough people that even the most respected journalists peddled lies there was a reasonable chance that voters might end up believing him.

The frightening thing is how well this worked: see the 74m who turned out for Trump in November, and the countless polls in which people around the world say they no longer know who to believe. And see the motley crew of clueless rioters who followed their President’s incitement to storm the Capitol and disrupt the confirmation of Joe Biden as President.

A failure of journalism?

Were the last four years a failure of journalism? A damnation of social media? Or is the untamed chaos of 4bn people with mobile publishing devices in their pockets simply bound to succeed when the leaders of even the most stable western democracies decide to flood the zone with shit?

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First, a salute to the many, many journalists who did all that could have been expected of them – and more. I saw the NYT’s Dean Baquet and the Washington Post’s Marty Baron on several occasions during the last four years and sensed what a weight of responsibility and expectation lay on their shoulders.

When all the other bulwarks fell, they held strong. “We’re not at war, we’re at work,” was Marty’s typically understated view of what was required. The New Yorker’s exemplary editor, David Remnick, handed down tough love to tired reporters: “This is the time you drink some coffee and work. We need to do our damn jobs with a sense of not political opposition but sheer intensity for finding out what’s true and what’s not.”

Spot on. So spot on that, on hearing this, Tom Hanks delivered a new espresso machine to the White House press corps, accompanied by a note urging them to “keep up the good fight for truth”.

The caffeine worked with some – notably some tenacious TV White House correspondents and the incomparable Maggie Haberman of the New York Times. At its best, the US media held the line when institution after institution failed in their role of holding Trump accountable – or, at the very least, standing proudly independent.

But there are no prizes at all for Fox News – or all the other broadcast talkshow hosts and stations which forgot what journalism is supposed to be about.

Does Piers Morgan blush just a little at the schoolgirl crush he once had on his friend, the Donald? Do you remember how odd that exclusive January 2017 interview in the Times seemed even at the time – the one with Michael Gove sycophantically transcribing banalities which Rupert Murdoch sat alongside? It’s got even odder with distance.

Remember the triumphalism of the moment. The lectures we had to endure about how anyone who didn’t swoon at the Messiah were told they “didn’t get it”? That they were out of touch: a sneering metropolitan elite who had missed the story.

It’s true that journalists (along with pollsters, academic commentators and the financial markets) underestimated the levels of support for Trump and the misunderstood wave of populism he both tapped into and unleashed. Guilty, as charged.

[Read more: Respect for journalists and big tech accountability: News industry’s wishlist for President Joe Biden]

Media vs Trump: ‘This shouldn’t have been a war, it was work’

But it was a huge mistake to overcompensate by making big leaps to the extremes – either to jettison all critical faculties (Fox News, until the last knocks of the Presidency), or to move into a position of perpetual opposition. This shouldn’t have been a war. It was work.

It’s well understood that the US media scene is virtually a mirror image of the British one.  Newspapers such as the NYT and Washington Post do their best to achieve “objectivity” [discuss] in their news reporting. It’s the broadcasters which feel free to blur news and comment in ways that can resemble Fleet Street at its most strident.

This has, I think,  been helpful to the American press as it wrestled with the difficult questions of how to cover a figure who has been duly elected but who (as the last weeks of his presidency have shown) is so aberrant as to be an objective menace to the democracy which elected him.

It must be as a relief, as editor, to leave the commentary to others and to concentrate on the daily beat of reporting; asking the nagging questions; overseeing the painstaking investigations; debunking the lies; presenting the unvarnished evidence.

In an increasingly polarised society facts count more than arguments. Why any politician in the UK thirsts for more opinionated television at this moment is a mystery.  We have – for better or worse – one of the most opinionated presses in the world.  It’s cool evidence we need, not more commentary.

A final thing. One of the ugliest things in Trump’s playbook was to bully individual reporters as well as smear entire news organisations.  Let’s hope we never again see a thug like that in power in a democratic country. But wouldn’t it have been nice to see all the other reporters in the room walk out when it happened?

That kind of refusal to tolerate any attempt to intimidate the press in the US would have rattled Trump. It would have also sent a sharp signal to other countries with mini- Trumps, or wannabe Trumps.

Solidarity and eternal vigilance count for a lot.

And buy that espresso machine now.

Alan Rusbridger Chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and is a former editor in chief of the Guardian. His book, News and How to Use it, was published in November.

[Read more: Incisive comment from Alan Rusbridger and others about the future of news media]

Picture credit: Shutterstock/Christos S

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