For a little over a year, the country has watched, mesmerized and stunned, as a New York firebrand has berated the downtrodden and celebrated the hateful. Donald Trump’s candidacy went from farce to tragedy, paralyzing a media unaccustomed to lies of this magnitude and vulgarity. For decades, the media upheld lies in public discourse for the sake of “objectivity.” That “objectivity” consisted of presenting a balance of viewpoints so as not to appear biased, even when the “little facts” overwhelmingly favored one particular view. Trump offers an opportunity for a national media diseased by its obsession with “objectivity”: a chance to replace its fixation on “little facts” by aspiring to a grander truth. Amidst historic economic inequality, racial tension, and religious intolerance, deep skepticism remains one of just a few still classically American qualities. While distrust of state and corporate power endured as a key part of the national narrative since the Revolution, a more modern and frenzied hostility toward not just institutions but also abstract ideas entered the American mainstream after World War II. New ideas about how societies should organize like communism and fascism challenged long-held assertions about American values, like the marriage between democracy and capitalism.
The siege of these perceived truths culminated in an attack on the idea of truth itself. In the aftermath of the war, there existed multiple theories of how the world works and should work, each of which claimed to understand a universal truth. These truths conceived of the world very differently. Historically, limited information and exchange meant that groups of people could live their entire lives with their fundamental understanding of the world, or their truth, relatively unchallenged. For generations, their own truth may have reconciled every facet of their lives, just as the “truth” of the ancient Greeks reconciled all of the “little facts” they knew of – that is, the occurrences around them – with a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Eventually, that pantheon crumbled under the weight of new “little facts,” like a better understanding of natural events, and its adherents moved to new truths like Christianity. But that kind of change came slowly compared to an onslaught of new truths Americans faced after World War II.
As new technology and ideological battles opened our eyes to the world’s complexities, we persuaded ourselves to create new truths, or narratives, to explain our different conclusions. For instance, how could the United States at once be a force for good in the world and commit atrocities in Vietnam? This was a new type of question to public discourse insofar as it disrupted fundamental assumptions about our world. Rather than reconcile these complexities, our desire for internal consistency led each of us to accept one or the other unconditionally. Depending on who you asked, either the United States was not a force for good in the world, or people in Vietnam deserved punishment. And people deployed their arsenal of “little facts” to support their viewpoint, suppressing and calling into question the others which did not. Gradually, the American public as a whole came to prefer several “truths” to a single, universal truth. People embraced new narratives which were in conflict with one another.
When people embraced their new truths, the media responded earnestly. Their industry, as it existed, could not weather the storm of multiple narratives because they were in the business of detailing a single narrative. In the past, when people arrived at different truths about Vietnam, for instance, they used a similar set of “little facts” and sources. Walter Cronkite and his cohorts demanded respect across most of the political spectrum, so peoples’ disagreements were rooted more in an interpretation of the “little facts” which were their narrative truths rather than in different “little facts” altogether. Therefore, in a world without belief in universal truth, the media could either embrace one of the more popular narratives in order to cling to ratings, or it could divorce itself completely from the job of narrative-making.
Ultimately, it did both. Within a few decades, the rise of conservative talk radio and cable news undermined the universal truth by presenting “little facts” selectively in favor of ideological priors. The end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 meant that broadcasters no longer had to provide liberal and conservative prospectives alike on a given issue, so they opted to present a singular narrative with a subset of “little facts.” Of course, news media could never realistically present all of the “little facts” and details of a given story – not even the broadcasting legends of yesteryear did that. But when the American people rejected the existence of a universal narrative, they lost interest in holding their media to any standard beyond regurgitating “little facts.” The media’s newfound practice of “objectively” presenting the “little facts” succeeded in appeasing the public because it relinquished the media’s role as an arbiter of truth, leaving that job to the American people.
The transition from universal truth to “objectivity” in the post-war era also forced the hand of the old guard. While CNN, Fox, and talk radio always aspired to tell their subjective truth rather than any universal truth, the Big Three television networks, NPR, the New York Times, and the like now faced a dilemma. At least they had long aimed to tell the truth, but they now faced audiences who no longer accepted the universal truth even existed. Where truth faded as a goal, “objectivity” soon took its place. An “objective” press simply presented a mess of facts and opinions, leaving its audience to curate their own truths. When CNN invites two people to debate the existence of climate change, for example, they create what Brent Cunningham of the Columbia Journalism Review calls a “false balance.” The “objective” media not only lends credence to falsehoods, but by equating them with actual “little facts” places them on an unimpeachable pedestal. Suddenly, in a world without an overarching truth, to deny deceivers and the delusional a platform to preach deception and delusion becomes “bias.”
It’s worth noting that even the golden age of journalism left much to be desired. The universal truth often expounded by American media reflected a post-war elite consensus that struck an unabashedly establishment and often militarist tone. Challenges to the U.S. government’s narrative about the Soviet Union, Vietnam, or even the Civil Rights Movement were generally tossed aside as unserious until popular opinion overcame the media’s inertia. Exactly one year before his assassination, for instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech condemning the escalating war in Vietnam. Newspapers and magazines like Life and The Washington Post decried it as “demagogic slander,” saying that Dr. King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause.” Of course, those same organizations would lambast the government as careless and deceptive with the release of the Pentagon Papers while an unpopular war drew to a close. Still, on the whole, even this imperfect media demonstrated an ambition to present a universal truth that reconciled the complexities of reality to the American public.
Cunningham wrote about false balance in the summer of 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War. This is not incidental. Whatever problems accompanied the media’s gradual abandonment of the universal truth, these issues first and most clearly manifested during the first term of George W. Bush. The press enabled Bush’s open disdain for the academy by failing to duly cross-examine his policy claims. The administration made abundantly clear their intention to remove Saddam Hussein from power in September of 2002, more than 6 months before the invasion. And yet, despite its importance to public debate leading up to the war, the media took its lead from the Administration and made no effort to discuss what a post-Saddam Iraq would look like. As Cunningham notes, the press began zealous coverage of the potential transition in the weeks following President Bush’s own speech on the topic, “as if the subject of the war’s aftermath was more or less off the table until the President put it there himself.”
This is just one example of a trend that has only gotten worse since 2003. From “death panels” to the birther movement, the media has idly stood by while public officials have introduced increasingly absurd “facts” into public discourse. According to the new media, “facts” can be corrected but ideas cannot, no matter how grossly incorrect they might be. These lies undermine our democracy and distract from serious debates like war and healthcare.
Coverage of Trump’s candidacy began with incredulity. No one, least of all the beltway reporters accustomed to the predictability and restraint of D.C., could quite believe they had to cover a candidate with such a small vocabulary and short temper. The donor class, which would normally restrain undesired elements of the party, could not control Trump. Not only could the billionaire fund the early stages of the primary on his own, he also received more than $2 billion of free airtime. In an era of falling ratings, Trump was crack and the media was addicted.
Around the time of his nomination, members of the press began to feel guilty about their role in Trump’s rise. In March, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote an opinion piece about the “broad…view that we in the media screwed up.” Articles to this effect popped up in U.S. News, Salon, The Washington Post, and other outlets collectively overcome with embarrassment. They scrambled to explain themselves, and it seems that many of them may have realized why they failed. Seeking redemption, many in the media began to return to their responsibility as curators of “little facts.”
In June, CNN began using their breaking news chyron to call Trump out, with gems like “Trump: I Never Said Japan Should Have Nukes (He Did)” and “Trump’s Son: Father Apologized to Khans (He Hasn’t).” NPR had just two fact checks from the 2012 election, compared to 15 so far this time around. NBC even published a piece called “Reality Check: Is America Already ‘Great’ or in Rapid Decline?”—not just verifying statements from candidates but engaging with the broader narrative of American life today. This marks what might be the beginning of a seismic shift in the way the American media works. The greatest accomplishment of Trump’s campaign may have been to make the American media great again.
Of course, the media doesn’t deserve congratulations just because it’s begun to make inroads in restoring a basic credibility it abandoned. The responsibilities of the Fourth Estate extend beyond November. Trump’s historic unpopularity might have motivated a transition back to something resembling truth, but the media will earn its stripes when it begins to tell unpopular truths. Americans first encouraged the media to depart from truth-telling, and their desires remain the strongest impetus for an evolving media. Either the media will have to resist a slide back to false balance, or the American people will need to demand truth—not just a confirmation of their values. Objectivity matters, but sacrificing truth on its altar strips journalism of its most important function.