Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the new podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
When President Donald Trump’s social media feeds went dark after the insurrection at the Capitol, it felt like a fog beginning to lift. For more than five years, starting with his campaign announcement in June 2015, political journalism had been clogged with a nonstop torrent of exaggerations, lies and head-scratching pronouncements that scuttled efforts to focus on systemic concerns.
From exhaustive fact checks to contentious briefing-room clashes over the administration’s “alternative facts,” debunking the whirl of lies became a full-time process and started derailing pressing long-term conversations. But as the past few weeks have shown, the mendacity that once seemed like a feature of politics in the age of Trump has outlived the former president’s Twitter feed.
The past week alone has featured increasingly ridiculous false claims issuing from the right. There’s the one about the Biden administration taking away Americans’ hamburgers. And the one about the White House giving gift bags with the vice president’s book to migrant children – that one was effectively retracted by the New York Post and the reporter resigned, saying she was forced to write a false story.
As those pseudo-stories suggest, while we may have dispensed with some problems unique to living in a country run by an inveterate liar, questions remain about how to deal with a continuing torrent of politically useful falsehoods. And they remain because the problem both predates Trump and was exacerbated by him; indeed, it goes to the heart of how journalists think about what they do.
A key tenet of professional journalism from its earliest days has been exposure, particularly the mandate to thrust bad deeds into the spotlight that the doers had tried feverishly to conceal.
Exposure also meant airing a range of ideas, more or less evenhandedly, so readers could sort through them independently to decide what they thought. That last instinct intensified in the late 1960s as politics grew more sharply ideological. Increasingly, media outlets sought to feature a voice from the right and a voice for the left in order to strike a pose of balance and objectivity.
But what happens when the incentives change, along with the meaning of “exposure,” and the goal is no longer to persuade people of the merits of an idea but simply to expose as many people as possible to a false story? According to that huckster-like rationale, exposing the idea – even while debunking it or pointing out its ethical and logical flaws – plays into the hands of the people circulating conspiracies.
That dynamic predates Trump’s rise. Since the 1990s, conservative media has developed a symbiotic (or parasitic) relationship with mainstream news. For all the talk of silos and bubbles and echo chambers, the real power of right-wing media outlets has been their ability to influence the coverage of non-conservative outlets.
Conspiracies about then-President Bill Clinton regularly crept into the national news. In 1995, “60 Minutes” devoted a segment to the death of Vince Foster, a Clinton staffer who had died by suicide two years earlier. In right-wing circles, though, Foster’s death was treated as a conspiracy: a murder covered up by the administration.
There, true believers could pick up any number of books and videos and articles all devoted to the Foster conspiracy, which had so much staying power that one of the most-watched national news shows spent time once again debunking it – not, as host Mike Wallace explained, because the facts were in question, but because the conspiracies circulated so widely.
Fox News was founded the following year and would go on to expand its political influence largely thanks to the coverage its stories received on other networks. Over the years, the relentless and inaccurate flogging of pet issues like “Fast & Furious,” Benghazi and of course, Hillary Clinton’s email server, seeped from Fox News into other outlets.
Matt Yglesias, writing for Vox in 2018, dubbed this the “hack gap”: the more outrage one is willing to perform, the more headlines one gets. And the right has been much better than their opposition at performing outrage.
This prowess holds even, it turns out, when the outrage is powered by something simply conjured from thin air. That was the case with birtherism, an easily disproven claim about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. While mainstream journalism had no truck with birtherism, it thrived in the right-wing media marketplace, where politics, conspiracy and entertainment grew indistinguishable.
Fact checks by mainstream media – including Obama’s decision to release a second version of his birth certificate in 2011 – had no lasting effect on belief in the conspiracy, which actually grew in popularity during Obama’s second term in office.
The case of birtherism shows that debunking a lie, unless handled very carefully, doesn’t work. Exposing a lie for the falsehood it is can actually spread misinformation further by repeating the false claims. So the more journalists try to do their work – the work of exposure – the worse the situation gets.
That dynamic has been amplified by two major media developments of the past few decades: the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which enable the rapid spread of misinformation, and the economic restructuring of journalism, which rewards vast amounts of content delivered at a rapid pace and encourages outlets to cover the outrage of the day. The remaking of the information environment means that journalists are not the only ones who have to adapt – the rest of us do as well.
During the Trump era, things got trickier. Journalists felt they couldn’t turn away: after all, the primary source of misinformation was the president of the United States, and they had to cover him. But in a post-Trump era, it is clear that the problem is not an adversarial or polarized relationship between the press corps and the president. The problem is deeper and more structural: it’s the way non-conservative outlets get used to further circulate conspiracies.
There’s not much that can be done about the proliferation of right-wing outlets. A new Fairness Doctrine won’t do it, and as long as there’s an audience hungry for the kind of content provided by right-wing talk radio and broadcasters like Fox News, boycotts and the other economic activism will have limited effects. So when it comes to misinformation, the approach should focus more on containment.
For journalists, part of the solution has to be cutting the cord with Fox News and its fringier cousins. That doesn’t mean ignoring it all together – I’ve recently argued that we have to pay attention to people like Tucker Carlson, who uses his show to spread hate – but scaling back the overall coverage of right-wing stories. When outlets do tackle something like Carlson’s use of “great replacement theory,” they should do so in deeply contextualized ways, so the story is less about what Carlson said last night, and more about the ways unfounded xenophobic and racist talking points get woven into his prime-time show.
For the rest of us, one of the most important things people can do is to resist the temptation of social-media dunking.
I know: sharing outrageous clips to call them out comes with a surge of adrenaline and righteousness – as though with enough retweets, people will finally understand how poisonous and fraudulent the material is. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the misinformation winds up before millions more eyeballs, often without any real context or explanation.
The problem of misinformation is a thorny one. It is particularly difficult to fix because it plays on the virtues of journalism, its commitment to exposure and fairness. But in an information environment in which exposure aids misinformation, the best approach is a deeply unsexy one: to ignore the shiniest, least reality-based objects – no stories or tweets on illusory beef bans, for instance – and to deeply contextualize the rest, to help people understand the incentives behind the spread of misinformation, and why it’s suddenly everywhere.
That is slow, hard work that likely won’t be rewarded with prizes or film treatments or Twitter virality, but it can start the process of defanging misinformation in a post-Trump era.