What does it take to be a journalist in the age of Trump? Do the opposite of what happened last week.
On Thursday, Peter Alexander, national correspondent at NBC News, reported (on Twitter, where most reporting happens now) that the U.S. Treasury Department had quietly eased sanctions to allow U.S. companies to do business with the Russian FSB; 40 minutes later, he noted that it was a “technical fix” planned under the Obama administration. The first tweet was retweeted more than 6,200 times, the second a piddling 247.
This has been the pattern of late. Last Saturday, following Trump’s controversial executive order on refugees, CNBC’s John Harwood reported that the Department of Justice had no role in evaluating the order (3,000+ retweets); one hour later, he issued a correction (199). Similarly, Raw Story cited American Foreign Policy Council scholar Ilan Berman to suggest that there was “no readout of Trump-Putin call because White House turned off recording.” The tweet linking to that story has 9,700 retweets, and travel blogger Geraldine DeRuiter’s outraged tweet — “They. Turned. Off. The. Recording. When. He. Called. Putin. IF OBAMA HAD DONE THIS THE GOP WOULD HAVE HAD HIM TRIED FOR TREASON.” — has been retweeted nearly 30,000 times. Berman took to Twitter to explain that he didn’t know “for a fact” that the recording had been turned off; it was simply “conjecture.” Twenty-seven retweets.
Care for more? There was a great deal of Supreme Court–related misinformation. Jeff Zeleny, CNN senior White House correspondent, reported that the White House had set up Donald Trump’s Supreme Court announcement as a “prime-time contest,” noting identical Twitter pages for potential appointees Neil Gorsuch and Tim Hardiman (1,100+ retweets); a half hour later, he noted that the pages were in fact not set up by the White House (159 retweets).
Off of Twitter, NBC News reported that Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee, “opposed campus military recruiters” in an op-ed written for Columbia University’s student newspaper in February 1987. It wasn’t true. The U.K.’s Daily Mail reported that Neil Gorsuch founded a “Fascism Forever” club at his Jesuit high school. That wasn’t true, either.
And there was still more. Reuters reported that Trump was responsible for the SEAL-team raid in Yemen that left an American soldier dead, and even approved the operation “without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.” It almost certainly wasn’t true.
The Associated Press reported that Donald Trump “warned in a phone call with his Mexican counterpart that he was ready to send U.S. troops” into the country. A spokesman for Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto immediately decried the report as “absolutely false,” and U.S. officials explained that the comments were intended as a joke.
Half a dozen sites reported that Donald Trump changed the name of Black History Month to “African-American History Month.” False.
But even if members of the Trump administration are working to undermine the very notions of ‘fact’ and ‘truth,’, the situation is not righted by the journalistic corps’s doing the same.
Again: This was all within the last week.
Journalists, citing Donald Trump’s own serial fabulism, have lamented that journalism is uniquely difficult in the era of Trump. It’s not. Journalism, as a trade, is the same now as it was under Barack Obama as it was under George W. Bush. The basic rules still apply. When you make a claim, have as many sources as possible at hand to support it. Name your sources, as often as possible. If you do not have reliable evidence for a claim, don’t make it. If you don’t have a firm grasp of your subject, consult an expert. Be fair-minded. Be honest.
The above does not require “skepticism.” It does require prioritizing what is true over what is exciting. Anyone with a high-school diploma has been instructed in how to read with a basic amount of discrimination — to note the difference between “primary” and “secondary” sources, to evaluate the credibility of an assertion. We should be able to expect journalists to exercise at least this much discernment.
There is a theory, which has mustered considerable assent, that Donald Trump — or at least Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and Sean Spicer — are working to undermine not simply the left-leaning press but the very notions of “fact” and “truth,” so that they can wield power more effectively, shielded by a nationwide epistemological fog. Perhaps this is so. But even if it is, the situation is not righted by the journalistic corps’s doing the same.
This country has plenty of activists, in government and out of it. Massive numbers of people on both sides are prepared to march and shout and donate and propagandize on behalf of their preferred causes. We don’t need more activists. We need journalists.