Commentary: How media can answer to Big Lie of election fraud

More than boilerplate responses, it will require detail and a commitment to truth and science.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

His administration is down to its last hours, but you can bet that the false belief held by millions of Americans that the election was rigged is not going away when President Trump does.

Journalists, if they take their core mission seriously, should think hard about how they’re going to confront this Big Lie, as it’s become known.

Our goal should go beyond merely putting truthful information in front of the public. We should also do our best to make sure it’s widely accepted; “to create a public square with a common set of facts,” as Tom Rosenstiel, an author and the executive director of the Virginia-based American Press Institute, put it.

But how? Here are a few ideas I’ve gathered.

Stop relying on shorthand.

Too often, even the most credible journalists who are trying to cover the disastrous effects of the Big Lie explain it by sprinkling phrases into their reporting like “baseless claims” or “without evidence,” and seem to expect them to do all the work.

But that’s simply ineffective. “People don’t notice this boilerplate language after a while,” Rosenstiel said, “or even begin to bristle at it.”

What’s the alternative? Journalists should take the time — even in an ordinary news story or brief broadcast segment — to be more specific. Let’s offer a few sentences that give detail on why the claims are baseless and how they’ve been debunked.

The second paragraph of this January national security report in The Washington Post does just that: “By mid-December, President Trump’s fraudulent claims of a rigged election were failing in humiliating fashion. Lawsuits were being laughed out of courts. State officials, including Republicans, were refusing to bend to his will and alter the vote. And in a seemingly decisive blow on Dec. 14, the electoral college certified the win for Joe Biden.”

That’s far better than a mere nod to “baseless claims.” As Rosenstiel put it: “Engage in verification and explanation, not labeling.”

Use an honesty litmus test.

Journalists long ago made a virtue of getting input from both sides of an issue. It’s generally a healthy practice, but it also became a crutch. And when one side consistently engages in bad-faith falsehoods, it’s downright destructive to give them equal time.

Joe Lockhart, President Clinton’s former press secretary, offers an extreme example: “If I went on the air and said the Holocaust didn’t happen, the interview would end right there.”

Similarly, the election-fraud lie — which was the foundation for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — shouldn’t be given a huge megaphone either. But you can expect some Republican members of Congress will trot this out during Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, Lockhart warned. He argues that news organizations should think hard before allowing these claims to be broadcast live and at length.

“It’s no longer a case of no harm, no foul,” Lockhart told me. We know what damage has come from helping the Big Lie to spread.

The NYU professor and press critic Jay Rosen put it memorably: “In the same way that you might begin an interview with a pro forma, ‘This is on the record,’ or ‘How do you spell your name?’ journalists (and talk show bookers) should set the ground rules with, ‘Very quickly before we start: Who was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election?’ ” If the answer is “We need to investigate that” or “President Trump,” simply withdraw the opportunity.

In the bad-faith political world we live in, these kinds of sound policies will be branded as liberal bias and a free-speech violation. Not so.

“This isn’t a cancel culture,” Christopher Krebs, whom Trump fired as head of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told CNN last week in arguing why it’s essential to shoot down harmful false claims as he did. “There has to be an accountability culture in the United States right now.”

Learn the science about how people absorb truthful information.

We know how propaganda works: largely through repetition, which Trump was a master of. He sowed the seeds of the election-fraud lie long before his voters went to the polls.

But how do you counter propaganda? How do you present the truth so it is accepted? Rosenstiel says we need “to understand the neuroscience of creating receptivity for reasonable but skeptical audiences.”

Part of that involves going back to journalism fundamentals. We need to provide evidence and verification, instead of blustery claims and outrage, the bread-and-butter of cable news.

As one example, he pointed to the New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall, formerly of The Washington Post, who often helps his readers get underneath the surface of current issues by introducing research with significant depth.

In a column last week, he dug into the root causes of the largely white riot at the Capitol. While fully acknowledging racism as a cause, he also asked, “How toxic is the combination of pessimism and anger that stems from a deterioration in standing and authority?” And he provides some detailed, illuminating answers.

These methods — which admittedly are just a start — may be a poor match for what’s out there: a fetid, endlessly renewing Niagara Falls of lies and disinformation.

But given that democracy depends on a society accepting a common set of facts, it is urgently necessary to do something. Something, that is, beyond what we’ve always done before.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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