OP-ED: Truth, misinformation and the press
On Nov. 13, I was one of three panelists in Wisconsin who met via Zoom with about a dozen journalists and public officials from various countries in Latin America. The purpose of this 90-minute meeting, arranged by the International Institute of Wisconsin in cooperation with Graduate School USA and the U.S. State Department, was to examine "the current threat posed by disinformation and deceptive news" and "explore ways to verify reliable sources of information and counter misinformation," among other related goals.
This exchange, like others I've participated in about once a year over the last decade, was part of the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program. The meetings, I'm told, are not recorded to protect the "privacy and safety of the visitors," whom I am also not identifying here.
My fellow panelists were Julia Hunter of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and David Armiak of the Center for Media and Democracy, a group that debunks spin and disinformation. We all expressed concern to live in a time when lies are common currency and truth has been devalued. We said this underscores the importance of fact-based journalism and honest investigation into official pronouncements.
I ventured that, with regard to President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the results of the Nov. 3 election, the U.S. press has been doing a fairly good job. The president's allegations of widespread electoral fraud are being appropriately tagged as "baseless," "without evidence" and "unfounded and erroneous."
We discussed how first MSNBC and then other networks broke away from covering Trump's live remarks on Nov. 5, saying he won the election but for all the "illegal votes." I mentioned that a similar thing happened on Nov. 9, when Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto cut off White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany in mid-lie, telling viewers "I can't in good countenance continue showing you this."
Several of the visitors noted that this could never happen in their countries, where state-run media would not even think of cutting off a president or other government official. Even pointing out after the fact that a person in power said something untrue could bring severe consequences, as independent news outlets in Latin America are subject to harassment, closure and violence.
This is something I've seen at previous, in-person International Visitor Leadership Program sessions. The visitors I've met — from Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa — often express amazement at how much freedom the U.S. press enjoys. Some marvel at the ability of journalists here to criticize and even ridicule those in power. Most dryly observe that they could not undercut government officials without putting themselves at risk.
But sadly, I told the visitors, the ability of U.S. journalists to tell the truth has been substantially diminished by the widespread erosion of regard for truth itself. Large numbers of Americans believe, based on zero evidence, that Democrats, the media and the "deep state" stole the election from Trump, at the same time as they believe that COVID-19, which has killed a quarter of a million Americans, is a hoax.
My message to the visitors was that we face a common enemy: the preponderance of lies. We also share a common goal: to make truth matter. We as journalists should apply and teach the skills we've honed — skepticism, empiricism, rationality — to the extent that we can, given the obstacles we face.
Our obligation as journalists and opinion leaders is to insist that truth is knowable, and deserves more fidelity than falsehoods. That is the torch we must carry into the future.
— Bill Lueders is editor of The Progressive magazine and president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive, and distributed by Tribune News Service.