Sunday, January 17, 2021


Jonathan Swift didn't exactly say that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots, but it's an important warning about how false beliefs spread, and we've seen it embodied in the response to the Donald Trump's stolen-election lie. Margaret Sullivan is absolutely right about this:
Too often, even the most credible journalists who are trying to cover the disastrous effects of the Big Lie explain it by sprinkling phrases into their reporting like “baseless claims” or “without evidence” — and seem to expect them to do all the work.

But that’s simply ineffective. “People don’t notice this boilerplate language after a while,” Rosenstiel said, “or even begin to bristle at it.”

What’s the alternative? Journalists should take the time — even in an ordinary news story or brief broadcast segment — to be more specific. Let’s offer a few sentences that give detail on why the claims are baseless and how they’ve been debunked.

The second paragraph of this January national security report in The Washington Post does just that: “By mid-December, President Trump’s fraudulent claims of a rigged election were failing in humiliating fashion. Lawsuits were being laughed out of courts. State officials, including Republicans, were refusing to bend to his will and alter the vote. And in a seemingly decisive blow on Dec. 14, the electoral college certified the win for Joe Biden.”

That’s far better than a mere nod to “baseless claims.” As Rosenstiel put it: “Engage in verification and explanation, not labeling.”
I'd go further. We need detailed recaps of exactly what happened to Trump's case in courts and in election officials' offices. Tell us what the Trump team claimed and then what it was actually willing to put in legal filings, which often omitted the very claims Trump's people were making in public pronouncements. Point out which claims Trump's people have never backed up with evidence, and which ones they've backed up with evidence that fell apart under scrutiny. Recount how many legal cases the Trump team has lost, and give us quotes from the decisions that make clear why the cases were rejected. Tell us why election officials believe the votes were legitimate and were counted fairly, and why the claims in a million Facebook posts are deceitful. Tell us the whole story as if we don't know it -- because, in fact, most Americans don't.

On TV, take your time -- make it an hour-long special if necessary (but post bite-size highlights on social media). Online, newspapers and magazines should make the story thorough but visually appealing -- as you scroll, you'll scroll past highlights from withering dismissals by multiple judges.

Of course, none of this will persuade GOP voters. But it might persuade some of their neighbors. It will make the case to the persuadable that the answer to the question "Did Joe Biden steal the election" isn't "No," it's "Hell no," and that believers in the legitimacy of the election have nothing to hide.

Yes, as Sullivan says, there should be a capsule rebuttal of the Trump case in every story that mentions his allegations. But we need more.

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