It’s been a week of monumental change in media, politics and national life, most notably: Donald Trump, who dominated popular culture the last four years, is out of the White House and finally off every social media platform that matters.
It’s also been a week of hope, promise and major resets. One of those resets came Wednesday afternoon in the first White House press briefing of President Joe Biden’s administration. In his inaugural address earlier in the day, Biden had said, “There is truth and there are lies … We must unite to defeat the lies.”
Trump, of course, was the liar-in-chief who used the most powerful platform in the nation to poison our information ecosystem with propaganda, disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories. We saw how convincing his biggest lie ― that he won the election ― was to some of his followers who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 on his behalf leaving five dead.
Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki picked up on the president’s call for truth during her first media briefing as she took control of the podium at which many of the president’s lies were voiced. Trump press secretary Sean Spicer falsely boasted about the largest inauguration crowd in history during his first briefing four years ago. Psaki promised to share “accurate information with the American people” and to “bring truth and transparency back to the briefing room.”
That is music to my ears, and it led many in the White House press corps to hail a “return to normalcy.” I can understand how good it felt for some of those correspondents to no longer have to put up with insults and name calling, such as “enemies of the people” or “scum of the earth,” while simply trying to do their jobs. And it’s not just White House press briefings where we need a return to normalcy. In the euphoric aftermath of a week of uplifting television productions by and about the new administration, it is easy to read those return to normalcy statements as the war on truth is over and the good guys won.
Not exactly. That battle over accurate information, the lifeblood of democracy, is anything but over. The damage that Trump has done to facts, science, information and honest journalism is going to take years if not generations to restore. It might never make a comeback if politicians like Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri have their way in future elections. And it is going to take more than pronouncements by presidents and their press secretaries to do it. A coherent strategy involving journalists, teachers, political leaders and citizens is needed. It could be a tough task given that I am no longer sure most citizens even care whether they live in a media environment built on facts or a world of ideology and magical thinking built on alternative facts invented to make people feel good or kept in the dark about what their leaders are really up to.
How far away are we from being able to declare victory in our effort to reestablish a culture of facts and truth?
Consider this fact: According to a Pew study published Jan. 15, 34% of voters incorrectly say Trump definitely or probably was the rightful election winner. Think of that, one-third still believe Trump won, which, just for the record, HE DID NOT!!!!!! Square that with the idea of the good guys winning the war on truth. What kind of damage is that one-third going to do to the efforts of the Biden administration and any belief in our democracy in coming days?
Consider this observation as well: Fox News, the biggest alligator in the swamp of right-wing media, is taking a hard turn back to the right after briefly flirting with something resembling journalism during the last days of the presidential race. Fox News got good reviews in the mainstream media for being the first to call Arizona as a win for Biden on election night, but there was hell to pay from the hard right, which viewed it as nothing less than a betrayal of Trump.
The internal fallout from that election night call continued this week with Fox firing Chris Stirewalt, the digital politics editor and the one person at Fox News who could be trusted on election night. Remember how he stood his ground in 2012 when Fox analyst Karl Rove challenged him and his colleagues on their call of Ohio for Barack Obama? Stirewalt defended the Arizona call as well in November, and he was right. But Tuesday, he was out of job.
Fox News described the layoffs of Stirewalt and more than a dozen others as part of a restructuring of its digital operations. But the personnel moves are part of a larger and more dangerous story of Fox going back to its partisan roots. Add to that two smaller right-wing channels in Newsmax and One America News Network battling to see who can be harder on Biden and more in league with the followers of Trump, expect truth to be one of the first casualties. And we are talking about audiences in the millions for Fox.
Don’t expect Trump to sit down there in Florida and keep his mouth shut either. You have not been paying any attention to this man’s demented need for attention if you think that will happen.
In his farewell Wednesday before boarding Air Force One for Florida, Trump told a small group of family and friends, “We will be back in some form.” I don’t doubt him. As I wrote in November, Trump will remain on our screens because he cannot live without seeing himself on television. As much as he is a product of television, he is also its victim. If he does not see himself on TV, he does not exist. There is no reason in the world to think he is suddenly going to start telling the truth or anything close to it when he returns.
Reestablishing a culture of fact and truth is going to be a long and hard haul. It starts with media outlets and workers taking a tough look at their performances in covering Trump, acknowledging their errors and vowing to be better the next time they are tempted with ratings or page views to provide favorable coverage of someone who would destroy our very democracy. That kind of self examination and harsh critique is something most in the media don’t do well. And those who did worst in their coverage will be the ones shouting loudest to turn the page.
But it has to go beyond the media. We need our schools to teach media literacy. I recently taught a college course on the subject and discovered that some of the students were getting their news off a website run out of Russia. The website had run ads on Facebook attempting to promote racial discord in places like Baltimore during the 2016 presidential election. These were otherwise good college students making bad media choices. Start teaching media literacy in middle school.
We also need citizens who want more from their media than to be titillated, amused and spoken to at the most superficial, least intellectually challenging level. If you took pleasure in seeing Trump insult and try to demean journalists, women, immigrants and others, you got what you deserved the last four years. How do you like it now?
Everybody says they want truth, but few stood up as Trump and his allies buried it under a trash heap of lies. Let’s start by accepting that truth and go from there.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.