What if truth were a political position?

They still sell magazines in France

The US impeachment proceedings and the decision to indict Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu caught me at a conference in Paris where leaders of the news media wrestled with the industry’s many woes, first and foremost how to gain trust in an age of fabrications and divisions. They needed look no further than the US or Israel for evidence of how severe these problems have become.

What do you do when the very idea of truth — and perhaps the notion that there need to be journalists — is under assault by a major political movement? In such a situation the defense of truth, and the championing of journalism itself, become political positions. And if people believe the media has collectively taken a political position, it is discredited in their eyes overall.

And there is no question that indeed that has occurred. Appearing on stage at News Xchange 2019, my much-admired former AP colleague Sally Buzbee, now executive editor, presented the findings of a new study which showed how widely Americans believe they cannot trust various sources of information, including the media.

The AP story about the poll, which was conducted in partnership with the Chicago-based research organization NORC, said this distrust comes from “across the political spectrum,” and only hinted at what might delicately be referenced as certain correlations.

Sally herself sufficed to observe that some people believe the sky is blue, and others that “the sky is red.” (She also won massive audience approval with earnest and doubtless sincere vows to never get an election call wrong. I was struck by the fervent gratitude for this obvious and longstanding bedrock position on the part of AP, for it suggested something amiss and uncertain among the audience.)

One brave soul in the audience fumed that what many people are prepared to believe is “stupid” — but generally attendees were polite enough to avoid that word.

I noted in my own comment that it would be fair for the correlations between adherence to fictions and political position to be studied in depth and presented for public consideration. But mostly speakers at the conference danced around the question of who exactly are these people who think the sky is red.

Dig deeper into the AP poll itself (available on this site) and these indisputable correlations do in fact emerge. According to the summary: US “Democrats are more likely than Republicans to trust the input of scientists (72% vs. 40%), academics (57% vs. 30%), and the media (23% vs. 11%). Democrats also are more likely to turn to and trust the national news media, while Republicans are more likely to rely on the president.”

But it’s all a little confusing, because trust is a fuzzy and maximalist concept that can suggest an unbecoming level of credulity. Heck, I’m not sure I would offer a blanket assurance of trust.

It was easier to speak clearly about Vladimir Putin.

CNN’s Clarissa Ward described her ridiculous harassment while covering events in Russia on one occasion, to the point that an official propaganda film issued against her after her visit featured a man who had been stalking the crew falsely claiming to have worked for them as a fixer and to have been offered money for telling lies about Russia.

What reasonable person would believe such a thing, she asked.

Part of the problem is implicit in the question. Not everyone is reasonable. There are those who would indeed believe it, and they will not “trust” the media. We know the political correlation. She seemed to know it herself, without stating so, as she proposed that the Putin-style populists around the world do not need to be believed. They need only to “plant the seed of doubt,” she said. If they do that often enough and a growing number of people will believe no one. That circle of distrust may include them, but that’s OK. Their disadvantage as liars will be wiped out.

In the conversations around the conference, everyone seemed to lament the toxicity and the inability to unite audiences around even a basic common set of facts — or the cousin of this question, which facts are important. Some believe — as I do — that these complicated and bullshit-burdened times require more dot-connecting analysis. Others, more jittery, want just the facts (or as they are known in this milieu, “reporting“). Analysis can be so often mistaken for the dread state of opinion — and you can just imagine what that would do to trust among those whose political position is that the sky is not blue.

Some yearned for innovation and new tools to engage readers and measure sentiment — which is great, because that’s what I am selling (interested readers are invited to email me — it will be a welcome break from the trolls).

Many panelists yearned for more diversity in newsrooms, and that’s surely a good thing. But political diversity in times like these can be difficult to achieve. There could be little doubt about where most of those present stood on the big issues — including, of course, on the assault on truth itself.

That phenomenon is on full display with the struggle to report on the climate crisis, which was articulated by Agence France-Presse global news director Phil Chetwynd. Part of the problem is that the issue is highly scientific and hence too complex for the average news consumer; another that the cataclysmic scenarios are, while imminent, beyond the life span of most; and a third is, of course, that populists for their own reasons have planted the seed of doubt. It is acceptable in America to deny global warming, or lose oneself in fuzzy distractions over cyclicality. This makes the denialist position, with its catastrophic potential consequences, politically plausible.

And, of course, the phenomenon was on massive display in Israel even as the conference was winding down. Within an hour of attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit announcing the charges — unprecedented and stunning in their severity and context, for no sitting prime minister has ever been charged — Netanyahu went on the offensive.

His attack targets included Mandelblit himself, the state prosecution, the police, the legal system and of course the media. He did not focus on disputing the charges, some of which, like the gifts he admits receiving totaling vast sums, do not appear disputable. He focused on rubbishing the system, which he has presided over longer than any politician in Israeli history.

The hypocrisy screams out. Of course the prime minister has selective justice, which was one of his complaints — no one else is the prime minister. The prime minister is not supposed to portray the system as corrupt. The prime minister is supposed to show a modicum of good grace. And yes, the police can be psychologically brutal in interrogations, same as in most countries; has anyone heard Netanyahu addressing this phenomenon ever other than in the context of his aides that turned state’s witness? Clearly he is willing to burn down the house.

And then there is Netanyahu’s own statement of 2008, when as opposition he called on predecessor Ehud Olmert to resign because a prime minister cannot possibly be allowed to stay in office even during a police investigation, never mind after an indictment. He argued eloquently that important decisions would be tainted by suspicion over the motives. Olmert, with his minimal sense of what is appropriate, listened and resigned.

The divisions Netanyahu has and is further sowing are astounding. A large minority of the Israeli people will believe his version and will distrust anything that appears in the media about it (except for those platforms seen as doing his bidding).

How do you report on things like this while appearing impartial? Mostly the Israeli media this week gave voice to tut-tutting over the prime minister’s shameful behavior — thus confirming, to his credulous followers, a central tenet of his philosophy.

In America there is hardly even a question about what Trump has done, in the context of the Ukraine shakedown. It is really a discussion about whether bad is bad enough.

Is there a limit to impartiality? Part’s of the US media are now under assault for referring to Trump’s untruth as “lies.” (AP’s story on the new poll bravely referenced his “history of making false statements and repeating debunked conspiracy theories”; you could almost see editors bracing for the incoming bricks through the window. I was once one of them.)

It is happening all over the world — although, one must admit, perhaps a little more slowly in France. Emanuel Macron is in charge, and a compact, pressed and starched sense of decency still somehow barely prevails. It inspires sentimental yearnings for a time when politicians tried to at least hide their lies. And correspondingly they still sell magazines and newspapers here.

While right-wing populism is the main source of the problem right now, of course progressives are doing their best to contribute, to the point where at Harvard there was recently a scandal when masses of students opposed the Harvard Crimson student newspaper’s decision to contact ICE, the controversial U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, for comment on a story involving it. Truly the end of days: the progressives in their confusion are now joining the populist movement in opposing the basic tenets of journalism.

In this heated and unhealthy environment, an exception can be granted. It is a little analogous to the illiberalism we must grant liberals — and that is intolerance of illiberalism. Let it thrive.

Perhaps the defense of truth and the defense of serious journalism are “political” positions. Let the media take them. If that puts them on one side of the broader political spectrum, so be it. Shame on the other side.

Sally Buzbee at News Xchange, in talk with Stephen Gaisford

Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.