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There's More News Than Ever, But That Doesn't Mean The Truth Is Breaking Through

Jun 2, 2021
Originally published on June 3, 2021 12:04 pm

Updated June 3, 2021 at 11:30 AM ET

The Declaration of Independence says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Those truths the founders were talking about are at the core of American democracy — that all people are created equal, that they have certain inherent rights, that governments get their power from the people they serve.

But what happens when the people aren't united in a shared set of facts — when "truth" isn't evident or agreed upon?

As part of NPR's We Hold These Truths series exploring American democracy and how citizens participate in it, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been digging into the role of the press at this moment in our democracy.

In the past year, discussions about facts and truth have sprung up not only in the context of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and after former President Trump refused to concede the 2020 election, but also during the pandemic as disinformation ricocheted around the internet.

At the same time, trust and confidence in the mass media has been on the decline. In 2020, 60% of those polled told Gallup they had very little or no trust in the mass media. Back in the 1970s, when CBS' Lesley Stahl was covering the Watergate scandal, that figure was almost reversed: about 70% of Americans had confidence in the mass media.

"We're in this moment where people can really just go and seek out what they want to hear," NPR's Ayesha Rascoe says. "And there are people who are more than willing to tell them what they want to hear. ... You have more access to information, but not necessarily to the truth."

That got us wondering. Will we ever share a common set of facts again? What's the role of the press in defining a set of fundamental truths? And what happens when the mainstream media isn't trusted by millions of Americans?

We put some of these big questions about the media and democracy to three people who have been covering this tumultuous past year: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, CNN anchor Jake Tapper and CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl. They spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about disinformation, building trust with audiences and giving airtime to guests with spotty records with the truth. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On covering Donald Trump and his false claims about election fraud

Lesley Stahl: People, whatever we do, are seeing things so much through their own prism. If the president says, "I never said that," and we put up the video of him saying that, the public who is on his side will still tell you he didn't say that. So it's a really tough question: What should we be doing? My personal thought is you just put your head down and tell the story as faithfully as you can.

You either give in to the fact that media today is going to have an opinion, state your opinion and report from that aspect, period — and my daughter is telling me people her age, so 40 and younger, want that. They want to know what you think. They don't want to just hear you tell us that you're in the middle; they don't buy that. So say, "he lied," [or] "didn't lie." Just do it. Because honestly, I'm having trouble threading us out of where we are.

Jake Tapper: First of all, it's not like Donald Trump started lying on election night. And I think that the news media struggled with how to figure out how to describe what he was doing for quite some time. For me, fact checking things he said that weren't true became insufficient when, in May 2016, he falsely started suggesting that Ted Cruz's father had a hand in the Kennedy assassination. And that was a moment for me where I just went on air and said, "That's not an anti-Trump position or a pro-Cruz position. It's a pro-truth position." I have been trying to report from that perspective, that clearly, since. Which also entails, by the way, meaning you don't take anybody's word for anything. ... And I'm not trying to appease CNN viewers or appeal to them. All you can do is tell the news and share the news and give the facts and hope that people will just respect that.

On building trust with audiences

Ayesha Rascoe: During the Trump administration, there was this tension of trying to make sure that, yes, what he said mattered, but that doesn't mean that you had to parrot what he said unchallenged.

One thing that I do want to say is even when the idea that the media was being unbiased, they were coming from a certain perspective. So neutral statements like, "Well, the police said this, therefore it is true." That's not really a neutral statement. And in this moment, when you have communities that even back [before Trump took office], did not trust the media because they felt like they were not represented, they were not spoken to.

So this is something that goes beyond the Trump issue. And I think if we come out of this moment and it's only focused on Trump voters versus non-Trump voters and not looking at the fact that there were seeds of this in communities that felt like they couldn't trust the government, that they couldn't trust the media, I think you miss a whole big part of this country and where some of this distrust is coming from.

On giving airtime to people in power with a track record of flouting the truth

Tapper: It's more a question, which is: "If I know that you will lie about the election and vote that way, if I know you have such disdain for facts and truth that you're willing to buy all of these crazy accusations, then what else won't you lie about?"

Stahl: My mind is racing around thinking, "No value? Is that possible?" If our job is to persuade people, then we're never going to be believed or trusted. These questions are so difficult. And so at the heart of where we are right now in this country, as we all despair for the future of a democratic press, the freedom of the press: If nobody's believing us, what's our value?

On whether there's hope for the future of the press in American democracy

Stahl: We all know that, even the founding fathers understood that, at least in our system, having the press as a cleansing agent is vital. And so when you ask these questions, they are nearly impossible to answer. If people aren't coming from the same place they believe you're coming from, they may never believe you. You initially asked us, "Can we unthread this?" And my answer is: I'm not sure.

Rascoe: I think there is a hope because these conversations are happening, people are grappling with it. And I think that is a good thing.

And I think that even during the Trump years, a lot of people learned about political journalism, learned about journalism in general and saw the power of it. And so I think there was a younger generation that was inspired by it and that there will be people that will come up, who will say they saw journalists during those times that inspired them to go into it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's a question I get asked a lot these days when I give a talk or get to meet with students - will we ever share a common set of facts again? And then somebody will follow up - what happens when the mainstream media isn't trusted by millions of Americans? And then maybe some guy in the back will chime in - yeah, it's all well and good for serious journalists to try to be fair, try to be reliable. But doesn't it only go so far if half of America is tuning you guys out?

Well, I will be honest and say I don't always feel like I've got great answers. I'm wrestling with these questions myself. So as part of our NPR series We Hold These Truths, which explores American democracy and how we as citizens can and should participate, I have brought in a brain trust - three broadcast journalists at the top of their game to see how they answer. Lesley Stahl of CBS News is here.

Welcome.

LESLEY STAHL: Thank you.

KELLY: Also CNN's Jake Tapper - hi there.

JAKE TAPPER: Hi. Good to see you.

KELLY: And NPR's own Ayesha Rascoe - hey, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: So I want to start by asking, have we done our jobs as the media since the November election? Have we as journalists accurately conveyed what is happening in this country? Ayesha.

RASCOE: I think, in many ways, journalists have. But we're in this moment where people can really just go and seek out what they want to hear. And there are people who are more than willing to tell them what they want to hear. You can have a bias towards medicine, so then you're concerned about vaccines. And so you have someone who will tell you you don't have to worry about the vaccine. You don't have to worry about COVID. You know, you have more access to information, but not necessarily to the truth. And that is what seems to be happening in this moment.

KELLY: Well, let's get specific about how we are trying to do our jobs. I will share in conversations with my colleagues in the NPR newsroom in the days after the November election, we tried to make a shift from describing what the president was saying to what he was doing. Instead of saying the president is alleging fraud, the president claims he won, we tried to lead the show with he is seeking to overturn a democratic election. What conversations were playing out in your newsrooms, are playing out in your newsrooms now? Lesley.

STAHL: You know, people, whatever we do, are seeing things so much through of their own prism. If the president says, I never said that, and we put up the video of him saying that, the public who is on his side will still tell you he didn't say that. So it's a really tough question - what should we be doing? My personal thought is you just put your head down and tell the story as faithfully as you can.

KELLY: You're saying it's almost like the tried-and-true rules are more important than ever?

STAHL: Well, I guess. You know, you either give in to the fact that media today is going to have an opinion, state your opinion and report from that aspect, period. My daughter is telling me people her age, so 40 and younger, want that. They want to know what you think. They don't want to just hear you tell us that you're in the middle. They don't buy that. So say he lied, didn't lie, you know, whatever, just do it because I don't - I honestly am having trouble threading us out of where we are.

KELLY: Jake, what's the conversation at CNN?

TAPPER: Well, I mean, I think, first of all, you know, it's not like Donald Trump started lying on election night. And I think that the news media struggled with how to figure out how to describe what he was doing for quite some time. You know, for me, fact-checking things he said that weren't true became insufficient when, in May 2016, he falsely started suggesting that Ted Cruz's father had a hand in the Kennedy assassination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAPPER: I cannot believe I need to say the following, but here goes. There is no corroborated evidence that Ted Cruz's father ever met Lee Harvey Oswald or, for that matter, any other presidential assassin.

And that was a moment for me where I just, you know, went on air and said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAPPER: Now, that's not an anti-Trump position or a pro-Cruz position. It's a pro-truth position.

I have been trying to report from that perspective that clearly since, which also entails, by the way, meaning that you don't take anybody's word for anything.

STAHL: And can I ask you a question? When you say those things, you're talking to your audience, which, you know, isn't buying Trump's line. So you're talking to people who are inclined to listen to you. You're not talking to the Fox audience.

TAPPER: First of all, that's true. But, you know, our audience has independents and Republicans in it. It's not just an audience of Biden voters. What I report doesn't only go on CNN for people who have the TV on between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. It goes out on the internet. It's seen on Facebook. It's seen on Twitter. And I'm not trying to appease CNN viewers or appeal to them. All you can do is tell the news and share the news and give the facts and hope that people will just respect that.

KELLY: Am I right in thinking that your show started a policy? You have a policy now. You don't put lawmakers on the air who voted to overturn the election.

TAPPER: It's not a policy.

KELLY: Have you put any lawmakers on the air since January who voted to overturn the election?

TAPPER: No, I have not. It's more a question, which is, if I know that you will lie about the election and vote that way, if I know you have such disdain for facts and truth that you're willing to buy all of these crazy accusations, then what else won't you lie about?

KELLY: Ayesha, jump in because you're covering this as part of the White House press corps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RASCOE: Are you saying...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No. The DNC server...

RASCOE: ...It's OK for the U.S. government to hold up aid and require a foreign government to investigate political opponents of the president?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No. You're talking about looking forward to the next election. We're talking...

RASCOE: The DNC is still involved in this next election...

KELLY: Ignoring what the president or his spokespeople - the former president or his spokespeople say is not an option.

RASCOE: No, it's not. During the Trump administration, there was this tension of trying to make sure that, yes, what he said mattered. But that doesn't mean that you had to parrot what he said unchallenged. I do think - and one thing that I do want to say is even when the idea that the media was being unbiased, they were coming from a certain perspective. So neutral statements like, well, the police said this, therefore, it is true - that's not really a neutral statement, right?

And in this moment when you have communities that even back in the, you know, good old days, did not trust the media because they felt like they were not represented, they were not spoken to, so this is something that goes beyond the Trump issue. And I think if we come out of this moment and it's only focused on Trump voters versus non-Trump voters and not looking at the fact that there were seeds of this in communities that felt like they couldn't trust the government, that they couldn't trust the media, I think you miss a whole big part of this country and where some of this distrust is coming from.

KELLY: You're getting at something really interesting, which is it is possible to produce a news report that is absolutely accurate but not true. Lesley, I want you to pick up on the point that Jake was making about who you put on air.

STAHL: Yeah.

KELLY: And do you put somebody on air who is going to lie? You had that famously contentious interview with former President Trump right before the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STAHL: Do you know what you told me a long time ago when I asked why you keep saying fake media?

DONALD TRUMP: Yeah.

STAHL: You said to me, I say that because I need to discredit you so that when you say negative things about me, no one will believe you.

TRUMP: I don't have to discredit you.

STAHL: But that's what you told me.

TRUMP: You discredited yourself.

KELLY: And he stood up. He cut it off. He walked out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I think we have enough of an interview here, Hope. OK. That's enough. Let's go.

KELLY: What do you see as the value of an interview like that?

STAHL: Wow. You know, my mind is racing around thinking, no value, is that possible? If our job is to persuade people, then we're never going to be believed or trusted. These questions are so difficult and so at the heart of where we are right now in this country. As we all despair for the future of a democratic press, the freedom of the press - if nobody's believing us, what's our value? And we all know that even the Founding Fathers understood that, at least in our system, having the press as a cleansing agent is vital. And so when you ask these questions, they are nearly impossible to answer. If people aren't coming from the same place they believe you're coming from, they may never believe you. You initially asked us, can we unthread this? And my answer is, I'm not sure.

KELLY: Y'all are all pretty bleak and depressed, I have to say.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Are any of you optimistic about the role that we, the press, can play going forward?

RASCOE: I would say I think journalists aren't necessarily super-optimistic people. We can be a little bit cynical, and I try not to fall into cynicism too much.

KELLY: Fair.

RASCOE: I think there is a hope because these conversations are happening. People are grappling with it. And I think that is a good thing. And I think that even during the Trump years, a lot of people learned about political journalism, learned about journalism in general and saw the power of it. And so I think there was a younger generation that was inspired by it, and that there will be people that will come up who will say they saw journalists, you know, during those times that inspired them to go into it. So that's my optimistic thing to end this on.

TAPPER: Being on a panel with Ayesha and Lesley Stahl and you, Mary Louise - as somebody who's been on plenty of panels in my life and my career in which it's just five white men, yeah, I'm optimistic. I'm looking at the screen right now, and I'm seeing you three.

RASCOE: Thank you.

KELLY: Thank you.

We have been talking with NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, Lesley Stahl of CBS and Jake Tapper of CNN. Thank you very much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

TAPPER: Thank you.

STAHL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: And tomorrow, we hear from three top editors on how they have led their newsrooms through one of the most challenging news cycles ever. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.