What can journalists do about the ‘Unreality Crisis’?

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

This is the fourth installment of a column from API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel about the press and politics, culture and media ethics, technology and the search for sustainability for news. It is published in partnership with the Poynter Institute. Read the previous column here.

The numbers are hard for some to fathom. More than six in 10 Republicans think Donald Trump’s presidential reelection was stolen. Half believe left-wing protesters staged the January 6 insurrection to make Trump look bad.

What responsibility do journalists bear when so many Americans are misinformed? Put another way, how should a press operating in the name of factualism react when the leadership of one of the two major political parties has succumbed to the belief that blatant lies, gaslighting and fantasist arguments are the path to power?

Call it the Unreality Crisis in America, and it is now as significant an existential challenge to journalism as the search for a new business model.

A number of critics has suggested the press bears a good deal of blame for the dire status of empiricism in public life.

Professional journalism, they say, remains mired in outmoded political stenography — practices such as quoting both sides in controversies and trying to appear neutral, which can distort the truth and create equivalencies between facts and falsehoods.

“Bothsideism is poisoning America” the Nation argued during Trump’s first impeachment hearings. “Media’s ‘both sides’ obsession has gone too far,” Salon offered last month.

The press surely bears some responsibility for the state of politics. (Press effects is another column.) And media critics today (and the public) are on useful alert for examples where unequal arguments are given equal weight. They are not hard to find.

The Unreality Crisis in America is now as significant an existential challenge to journalism as the search for a new business model.

But I want to add some complexity to the debate. Suggesting that the press’ dominant norms today are still grounded in mindless stenographic balance and bothsideism of the 1950s, I fear, mischaracterizes and oversimplifies how the press actually operates. And that mischaracterization is getting in the way of finding meaningful solutions ahead for how journalism should change.

Though it may be worse now, the problem of confronting political lies is hardly new. The press already changed after the embarrassments of McCarthyism in the 1950s. It changed further in the 1960s and 1970s, after the Johnson and Nixon Administration’s systematic deceptions during Vietnam gave the world the memorable euphemism that correlates with a loss of institutional confidence in general, “The Credibility Gap.”

Today, at a time when many people know terms like false equivalency and bothsideism, journalists make far more effort, the record shows, to contextualize false or gaslighting claims by public figures than it did a generation ago or even prior to Trump.

Consider some of the biggest fantasist tropes that underpin the Unreality Crisis now. The latest is the argument that immigration — not low vaccination rates or failure to wear masks — is driving the frightening resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the South, a canard spread in particular by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, both of whom face reelection next year.

“No elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden with his open border policies,” DeSantis wrote in a fundraising letter August 4.

The press, however, did not mindlessly quote the man; he was immediately challenged. The Miami Herald “asked the DeSantis Administration for COVID-19 data on immigrants crossing the border but did not receive a response.” The Tampa Bay Times sought out medical experts who explained there was “no evidence” to back his claims. The Washington Post gave him three pinocchios.

The biggest trope of the Unreality Crisis is that in the  2020 election, someone — Democrats, or Antifa, China or Venezuela —stole the election from Trump. From the outset NBC called it “misinformation,” CBS “false” (CBS) and Politifact, in a long deconstruction explained at length how it was “wrong.” Months later, it is commonly referred to in shorthand as the Big Lie: “How Republicans used Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ to Restrict Voting” (NPR); “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie” (The New Yorker); “Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ imperils Republicans who don’t embrace it” (the AP).

Search Trump and Big Lie and you will get 67 million results.

This is not to say bothsideism doesn’t linger. It does. One important press routine that encourages passing along lies occurs when journalists frame political rhetoric in strictly strategic terms, describing the Machiavellian thinking behind a politician saying something blatantly untrue or absurd. The strategy frame can be useful to explain why politicians will knowingly tell lies. But when that strategic frame — not the issue itself — becomes the primary lens by which journalists see political debate (and too often it still is), a press that sees itself as savvy and pragmatic is being played.

If the dominant routine of the press is not mindless stenographic bothsideism, why have flagrant falsehoods and gaslighting gained such force today that the state of the Republic feels at risk?

Two other more modern factors, I believe, play a bigger role than bothsideism.

The first, paradoxically, is that the news media, especially television, goes out of its way to give airtime to people who will mouth extremist views and fantasist absurdities. Whether the intent is to reveal how extreme and polarized politics has become, or the reasons are more cynical — to create even more conflict on air in search of ratings — the phenomenon is a fact. The people we see on television today distort the reality of our elected officials and their views.

Compelling research from scholars Jeremy Padgett, Johanna Dunaway and Joshua Darr, which analyzed eight years of TV programming — 46,218 transcripts in all — reveals that TV news gives an outsized amount of time to the most ideologically extreme members of Congress, amplifying and rewarding them for their positions.

The effect of giving the most extreme and outlandish positions more time is significant. It disproportionately amplifies ideological divisions and distorts how great those divisions actually are. That, in turn, enables and rewards the polarization the press says it decries. This also then creates more polarization.

You want to raise your profile as a member of Congress, raise reelection funds, perhaps try to run for higher office? Become more extreme. Say wilder things and the TV bookers will invite you back. It’s particularly important as political coverage in local outlets, especially newspapers, shrivels. We can point to scores of politicians who have followed just that pattern in navigating the attention marketplace.

The second factor stoking the Unreality Crisis should worry journalists even more: To many political actors today, reality-based journalism is becoming irrelevant.

For a growing number of politicians, demonizing the press is a tried-and-true way to garner support and raise funds. Focus your ire entirely on the messenger and no one will give a thought to the message.

And it’s not just the Majorie Taylor Greene’s of the world, the freshman Georgia congresswoman who was delighted when she was stripped of her committee assignments because, she said, it freed her from wasting time sitting in bipartisan meetings and gave her more time on Twitter.

In May, Florida Gov. DeSantis closed reporters out entirely from attending a ceremony at which he signed a bill to make voting in Florida more difficult. Only a fawning crew from Fox News was allowed in.

In August, House Minority Leader staffers forcibly removed a CNN reporter who tried to ask the congressman why he opposed the House commission investigation into the January 6 insurrection. On video you can see the reporter, his camera still shooting, as he is lifted off the floor and removed from the room, calmly repeating his question.

In this new tactic, politicians score points with the Republican base, only 10% of which has even a modicum of trust in the mainstream press, according to the latest Gallup data, by showing their own contempt for it.

Yes folks, they are implying, the media are the enemy. They are lying to you. We real Americans have our own media now, a shadow press that exists on other channels and other platforms — from the peddlers of fantasist lies on Newsmax to the conspiracy memes peddled by Tucker Carlson, to the trolls on the Twittersphere and on Facebook (which this month declined to stop blatantly racist attacks on black footballers in England).

The media’s problem isn’t that it parrots both sides mindlessly. It’s that a large swath of Americans think the press has already taken sides — against conservatives and Republicans.

In the shadow platforms of the Unreality Crisis, the Election recounts are about to break open the bankruptcy of Biden’s presidency. Trump will soon be reinstated. The world you see on the news is a false reality, a lie, a conspiracy. And the media are to blame.

Republican political consultant Mike Murphy said “playing off the anger the Republican base has for the ‘main street media,’” may seem like a stunt, but something deeper is going on. “I think the media often has a real blindspot to how it comes off as having a culturally left bias, if not always a partisan politically left bias,” he said in an email. “That pushes a big button in the conservative grassroots, who see themselves always being automatically portrayed as rubes, villains and racists because they have signed onto the latest cultural identity dogmas.”

Republican pollster Frank Luntz agrees. According to the data he sees, “both conservatives and moderates think the press is failing to do its job,” Luntz said in an email. And “much of the media’s loss of credibility is the sense among the public that it willfully takes sides and rejects criticism. That’s why these stunts work.”

In Luntz’s view, in other words, the media’s problem isn’t that it parrots both sides mindlessly. It’s that a large swath of Americans think the press has already taken sides — against conservatives and Republicans.

Former Obama advisor David Axelrod was clear in an email to me that, “Discrediting an independent news media is a strategy ripped from the pages of the authoritarian playbook, and widely embraced by Republicans, who followed Trump’s lead.” There is little doubt that is true. But the press must find a way to address that distrust. It cannot write off the 60% of Americans who, according to Gallup, barely trust the press at all. Democracy depends on the press creating a public square and shared facts that the majority accept.

The press has many faults. And the Unreality Crisis is real and growing. But nothing will  be fixed with sanctimony, or by misunderstanding or mischaracterizing how the press actually behaves. Whatever the solutions, they start with getting the facts right about journalism’s weaknesses.