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In a Washington Post opinion blog, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote that Donald Trump has “shatter[ed]” journalists’ system of fact-checking in election coverage. Rosen argued that because Trump “wants to increase public confusion about where he stands,” journalists must “become less predictable.”
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with the help of many in the media, has peddled an unprecedented amount of outrageous lies. Trump’s dominance of the airwaves has allowed him to amplify deceitful statements on cable networks that “have been very bad at challenging his misstatements, his lies, [and] giving the audience the proper context” for his untruths. Veteran journalists have explained that this substandard coverage exists, in part, because “Trump is smart enough to know that if he gets out in front of the media with some outrageous statement, he backs up their ability to follow up the outrageous statement he made yesterday.”
In the July 13 post for The Washington Post, Rosen explained that Trump shattered the premise of fact-checking in campaign coverage intended to “constrain a candidate’s power to distort the public dialogue,” and has “crashed” the premise that candidates wouldn’t “spread malicious rumors and unreliable information.” Rosen urged journalists to, in turn, “be less predictable” in order “to explain to the public that Trump is a special case, and the normal rules do not apply":
One of the newer parts of that system is fact-checking, but this is also a practice with a premise. The premise is that fact-checking will have some shaming effect on the kind of behavior it calls out. Notice I said “some.” While all candidates (including Hillary Clinton) will avoid inconvenient facts, make dubious claims or even lie at times if they think they can get away with it, they normally change behavior when a statement has been widely debunked. They may not admit they were wrong, but they will stop repeating the unsupportable claim, or alter it to make it more plausible. That’s what a “check” is supposed to be: it constrains a candidate’s power to distort the public dialogue.
Trump shatters this premise.
As FactCheck.org put it: “He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.” Said Glenn Kessler, The Post’s Fact Checker columnist: “What’s unusual about Trump is he’s a leading candidate and he seems to have no interest in getting important things factually correct.”
Under conditions like these, fact-checking may still be worthwhile, but not because it has any shaming effect on the candidate. In fact, it could even be useful to Trump in whipping up resentment against the media, a key part of his appeal. My point is this: When the assumptions underneath a practice collapse, the ethics of that practice may shift as well.
One of the assumptions of campaign coverage was that candidates would never use their huge platforms to spread malicious rumors and unreliable information for which they have no proof: Too risky, too ugly. Trump has crashed that premise too. When called out on his rumormongering, he just says: Hey, it’s out there already. For journalists, this changes the practice of giving the candidate a broadcast platform. Just by granting that platform you may be participating in a misinformation campaign. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?
Imagine a candidate who wants to increase public confusion about where he stands on things so that voters give up on trying to stay informed and instead vote with raw emotion. Under those conditions, does asking “Where do you stand, sir?” serve the goals of journalism, or does it enlist the interviewer in the candidate’s chaotic plan?
I know what you’re thinking, journalists: “What do you want us to do? Stop covering a major party candidate for president? That would be irresponsible.” True. But this reaction short-circuits intelligent debate. Beneath every common practice in election coverage there are premises about how candidates will behave. I want you to ask: Do these still apply? Trump isn’t behaving like a normal candidate; he’s acting like an unbound one. In response, journalists have to become less predictable themselves. They have to come up with novel responses. They have to do things they have never done. They may even have to shock us.