Recently, Liz Cheney was removed from her House Republican leadership role because her views that the 2020 election was not stolen and the party needs to move beyond Donald Trump were too far out of the “big tent” described by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Her ouster further cements the Republican party’s allegiance to a worldview centered on whatever Trump wants to believe.
Despite many tens of lawsuits dismissed by judges wishing to remain in a reality of verifiable truths (and many of whom were appointed by the Republican party) and despite not taking the opportunity to present verifiable facts of election fraud in courts where lying can lead to jail time, a significant segment of the Republican party, led by my district’s House representative, is willing to promote the “Big Lie.” A democracy can only work if the people share the same set of facts and democracy is sustainable in the long run only if that set of facts is verifiable reality. People can disagree vehemently on what actions we should take and what priorities we should have in making policies or decisions based on those verifiable facts. Disagreement is fine, even healthy in a democracy, as long as the aim is a better understanding of verifiable reality.
My concern for the future of democracy in the U.S. is why I listened with great interest in a discussion on NPR recently about what should reputable news organizations do now with politicians who are promoting the Big Lie and then listened again several times to the recording. Forum’s host, Mina Kim, tried to get answers from her guest Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University. Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire solution.
There are three possible answers: a) not give the politician a platform on the news organization’s show or publication until the politician returns to reality (acknowledges the results of the election); b) bring the politician on the air and make them account for their lie in an adversarial process like what the Australian and British journalists do with their politicians; or c) contextualize the Big Lie instead of focusing on just the Big Lie and give the larger picture of what’s going on, of how the politician is trying to win through the lie. Each of these answers has pros and cons. There doesn’t appear to be one single best answer of how reputable journalists should deal with a political party or leadership that is, as Rosen noted, “determined to present to the public a false picture of what happened, when what happened is irrefutable.”
How journalists should deal with a situation in a two-party political system where one party is non-democratic (attacking the voting process itself), is not something taught in journalism school. If a politician is willing to lie about the legitimacy of the election or what happened at the Jan. 6 insurrection, what are they not willing to lie about?
Rosen explained that “underneath normal behavior in news radio/television is a model of how politics works that assumes there’s a common world of fact, everyone shares it, and the two parties have different views of those facts and different priorities that they’re going to explain to us when we bring them on air. This world is not based on a model where one party rejects a proven reality and the other party accepts it.”
There is now a bifurcation developing in our political system between a reality caucus composed of left, right, and center people arguing over priorities from a shared reality of verifiable truths and a fantasy caucus composed of people believing in fantasies spun by self-absorbed leaders. The fantasy caucus politician refutes the entire model of verifiable fact reality that journalism works with. Journalism needs to be on the side of pro-truth but there is the danger of crossing the line between reporting and opinion/commentary. Helping people develop the skills to distinguish between reporting and commentary and getting them to value the methods of verifying truths is now more important than ever to the survival of democracy in the United States.
Nick Strobel has been a professor at Bakersfield College for 25 years.