One of the tools used by those who seek illiberal democracy is the undermining of facts. We have witnessed, time and again, how Donald Trump goes out of his way to undermine facts. He repeats erroneous phrases and seeks to smear the Fourth Estate so that some of the electorate will be uncertain if what they read and hear from professional journalists are indeed facts.
Such attacks on the foundations of democracy are most concerning. Since 2015 more people have started paying attention to this problem as Trump has based much of his time as a candidate, and then as an officeholder, by not being honest with facts. And now there is evidence that what he is doing to this republic is having a detrimental effect.
The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Opinion Research released their findings this week and they are something we all need to be aware of at this time of constitutional crisis. Only 14% think policy decisions are often or always fact-based, or that Americans’ voting decisions are rooted in facts. Reporting by journalists scores slightly better with the public, but not by much: the survey found that only about 2 in 10 Americans believe media reporting is often or always based on facts. Roughly half of Americans think reporting is sometimes based on fact, while about a third say journalists never rely on facts.
What I found of truly disconcerting is that coupled with a finding from the same survey that found many Americans have trouble verifying for themselves whether information is true, the poll paints a picture of a country deeply insecure about separating truth from falsehood.
Which brings me back to Richard Stengal, the former editor-in-chief of Time and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Obama administration. He was in Madison recently to talk about this topic.
Stengel spoke about this being the first year when advertising on digital platforms outpaced dollars spent on television. People are getting more news from sources that are not always concerned about factual content. Coupled with the downsizing of newspapers and loss of readers, in part due to paywalls, Stengal made points on how journalists could enhance their role by providing additional facts, while news consumers could be better informed as to how a story is researched and reported.
While paywalls at newspapers are the means to add revenue to their business it also makes it harder for many people to get access to the news and fact-based content that is so needed in our nation. He knows that advocating for the removal of paywalls does not play well in the corporate boardrooms, but believes that democracy would be aided with such a move.
While anyone can print bogus and ginned up articles with ‘alternative facts’ it goes without saying there are no footnotes or research that could be shown to have merited such stories. In other words, much of the conservative ‘bombast’ could never be sourced.
Stengel believes, especially in the digital age, that posting links to the sources of information, or listing of names who aided in the development of a story would buttress the integrity of journalism.
The topics explored by Stengel were timely and much in need at a time when forces of illiberal democracy are constantly at work in the nation, and around the globe. The best way to fight back, as Stengel noted, is to be informed and armed with facts.