American news media tends to portray every political argument as having two equally valid opposing sides. Regardless of the weight of the facts, any time a controversy emerges, news programs almost always host dueling guests to argue their viewpoints. This is done in the name of balance and objectivity, and news agencies often try to portray themselves as impartial referees above the fray. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly common to see these efforts to maintain an image of objectivity lead to the promotion of false equivalences.
A perfect example is the debate over climate change. The scientific consensus over climate change is clear: the planet is warming, and human activity is a major contributor. The only real debate among climate scientists is over issues of severity and timescale, not root causes or the basic mechanics of the Earth’s climate.
But you wouldn’t know that from watching most newscasts. Deniers of climate science, who are nearly universally connected to fossil fuel interests or the right-wing politicians who champion the cause of that industry, are treated as if the debate over climate change is not a largely settled issue. Proponents and deniers of climate science are generally given equal time, and the demonstrably false position of climate science denial is framed as simply a difference of opinion rather than the deliberate dissemination of corporate propaganda.
The media’s modus operandi of refusing to call lies what they are and instead presenting them as valid differences of opinion is a large part of what led to their manufacturing of consent for Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, and it consistently provides his administration and its surrogates with ideological cover as they spread their falsehoods.
The lies of Trump and his administration need to be confronted directly and explicitly, not just by the partisan anti-Trump outlets, but by all journalists. Many publications choose to confront these lies with ambiguous language like “unsubstantiated claims” or by saying that the administration “has not provided evidence” to back up their assertions.
NPR and other news agencies have justified their refusal to use the word “lie” by arguing that they cannot know the internal motivations of politicians who make “false claims,” as they call them. While we can’t know what anyone’s internal dialogue is, we do know that the president has access to a lot of information and can declassify much of it at will. When Trump claims that millions of votes were fraudulently cast in the 2016 election or that Barack Obama personally wiretapped his office, the fact that he has provided no evidence to support these claims in the face of the mountain of evidence against them assures us that these are lies rather than simple mistakes.
A similar dynamic is occurring with the various Trumpian politicians who have become more vocal with their reactionary views since Trump’s election. Iowa Republican Congress member Steve King recently made news with a racist tweet that argued that western civilization cannot “be saved” by someone else’s (read: non-white) babies. In his tweet and subsequent comments during media interviews, King doubled down on that and past racist comments, alluding to the white nationalist myth of white genocide through demographic change and birthrates. Most mainstream outlets described his comments as “seen by some as white nationalist in nature,” or some other ambiguous framing. King and his ilk need to be called what they are by journalists: racists who regularly use language that previously has been reserved to the right-wing fringe of neo-Nazis and Klansmen. When the media fails to do this, they enable people like King to walk these kinds of comments back. This is exactly what King has done: blown a piercing dog whistle picked up by a specific racist demographic, then saved face when public opinion started to turn against him by claiming he was talking about culture, not race.
The media’s unwillingness to point out lies makes it easier for the Trump administration and its allies to both double down on their false claims when they play well with their base and walk back claims that prove unpopular. When news anchors and reporters give the benefit of the doubt to Trump’s claim of massive voter fraud, it leaves room for the administration to claim that the facts are simply in dispute, when really, there is no evidence to support their case. In cases when the public largely rejects Trump’s lies, such as his recent claims of being wiretapped as a candidate, he can walk it back by claiming the media simply misunderstood him.
The most basic function of journalism is to report the facts. Many journalists seem to think that means being a stenographer who repeats whatever claims a politician makes regardless of their veracity. The mission of any decent news agency should be to not only report what was said, but to explain the interests behind those statements and make clear to the viewer whether they are factual. When journalists fail to explicitly call out politicians’ lies, they becomes accomplices to deceptive political manipulations, utterly failing in their critical role in maintaining democracy and informing the public.