It’s Bigger than Fox News: Time for Mainstream Journalism to Reckon with Monetizing Disinformation and Eroding Truth
“Anti-Black racism is a national security threat.” Those were the simple, direct words of disinformation specialist Mutale Nkonde, CEO of AI for the People, on a listserv of journalists and academics recently. A group of us were in a vigorous debate over how much weaponized racial resentment was linked to the rise in Americans who believe the election was stolen, including domestic terrorists who helped siege the Capitol on January 6; or in people who deny science, including masks and Covid-19. Some call this split epistemic fracture or epistemological rupture — the moment where society splits into factions upholding or denying science and truth. It used to refer to the progress humans made in leaving antiquated and counterfactual beliefs behind. Now we are facing a reversal. The verdict in the impeachment trial may well deepen the rupture in America, emboldening everyone from anti-maskers to domestic terrorists.
We cannot separate the rise of powerful anti-truth forces from racial disinformation. Remember that candidate Donald Trump used racial resentment, including lies about immigration and Latinos, to gain followers and beat a field of established politicians. There were many contemporary precedents for the successful use of racial aniumus to win elections, including the 26 years Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio spent in elected office, even after he was convicted of contempt of court for defying Justice Department orders to stop anti-Latino racial profiling. Trump took his political playbook on anti-Mexican bias from the Sheriff, who then became the first pardon of his administration. Weaponized racial rhetoric often works, but too often experienced political reporters covered it as trivial or even laughable, not as powerful disinformation.
Now, some in both journalism and politics are beginning to ask the price we paid for disinformation, with limitations. In preparing for a Congressional hearing starting February 24 called “Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media,” a letter from the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked cable companies: “What steps did you take prior to, on and following the Nov. 3, 2020, elections and the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks to monitor, respond to and reduce the spread of disinformation, including encouragement or incitement of violence by channels your company disseminates to millions of Americans? Are you planning to continue carrying Fox News, OANN and Newsmax on your platform both now and beyond the renewal date? If so, why?” And on February 10, The New York Times published Nicholas Kristof’s column, “Can We Put Fox News on Trial With Trump?” In it, he writes, “In other words, the problem with Fox isn’t that it’s conservative but that it monetizes conspiracy theories and disinformation in ways that are sometimes lethal.”
But the issue is bigger than Fox news or right-wing news. The mainstream political press monetized disinformation too. While repeating his xenophobic narratives and polarizing the population, Trump received $2 billion in free media during the primaries alone — more than all the other Republican candidates combined. That means he was marketing xenophobia for free on the news. One example: the now-disgraced, then-powerful Les Moonves said twice on earnings calls that Trump wasn’t good for America but he was good for CBS. “Bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves on one of the calls. How we covered 2016 still matters today. Racism sells — not only for the politicians who use it as a lure, but to media outlets which program and produce the news. Many journalists who like me tried to cover the rising threat of white nationalist extremism were denied permission by our newsrooms to do so, during the 2016 cycle and beyond.
The acquittal in Trump’s second impeachment is a logical outcome of five years when the press has profited off covering the weaponization of race. Only after the siege last month has the media taken seriously its national security implications. The impacts ripple throughout society in unexpected and tragic ways. The high rate of US deaths from Covid, for example, is a domino effect of weaponized racial resentment in politics. Resentment is mobilized first via racial disinformation, which then is a gateway to people embracing other forms of disinformation, particularly during the isolation of the pandemic, like the anti-science Trump era policies on Covid. The melee over truth becomes one where people fight for their side no matter what — including espousing and spreading what social scientists call “blue lies” to support their “team.” In his award-winning 2019 book “Dying of Whiteness,” Dr. Jonathan Metzl writes: “The white body that refuses treatment rather than supporting a system that might benefit everyone is a metaphor for the decline of the nation as a whole.” Now, hundreds of thousands of people have died needlessly from politicized public health policy linked to disinformation.
It’s time to face journalism’s role in contemporary politics head on, both what we have done right and how we have failed. There is ample documentation of times across the industry when white reporters, editors and analysts were the most likely to underplay the appeal of Trump’s rhetoric; while Black and Latino journalists were most likely to treat this political speech as powerful and game-changing. It wasn’t all about the race of the reporter, but about the preconceptions about the narrative. Some white reporters who pitched stories about the importance of race in politics were also denied the chance to cover key stories. There should be internal audits posthaste in every major newsroom about how debates over stories get adjudicated.
“We found Black journalists were being told they did not have the objectivity to cover race during 2020,” says AI for the People’s CEO Nkonde, “while President Trump refused to condemn the Proud Boys and other white supremacists’ groups. This created a situation where the loudest commentary on race was coming from a president with far-right tendencies.” She and her team analyzed 1.3 million tweets circulated by a disinformation network targeting Black voters and published their findings in the Harvard Kennedy Misinformation Review. Nkonde, a former journalist, found that Black journalists were disempowered from covering key stories, and that her organization could not turn to the journalism establishment to fight disinformation because of its refusal to face race. This has endangered not just Black voters, but all Americans who want to live in a stable democracy. Another new report, this one by First Draft, found that television news amplified Trump’s claims that the election was stolen, yet did not adequately frame these claims as baseless.
Repairing epistemological fracture in America will require a re-setting of the truth. Like setting a badly broken bone it will be painful, and healing will take time. Our nation was birthed in the founding rupture of racial pseudoscience, with some humans classified as subhuman, including the Native Americans whose land this was and is; or, in the case of Black Americans, as 3/5ths of a person for political and financial purposes. Many modern Americans have consistently underestimated the echoes of those early decisions on our body politic and how equipped we are as a society to perceive and hew to the truth.
Journalism is not the only mechanism needed to re-set America on a path of truth, but it’s a critical one. The ways in which we have failed, as an industry, to tell the entire truth about America can be fixed. It’s hard to have these conversations with newsroom leaders. Too often when I’ve brought them up I’ve been accused of being disloyal to the profession, of trying to tear it down instead of reforming it. Journalism doesn’t need my help with a teardown. Right now, according to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, 56% of Americans believe the news is deliberately misleading or false. We journalists don’t need to be waging a PR campaign about how great we are. We need to get onboard with reforming our industry to better tell the truth.
Among the tasks facing today’s journalism, if we seek to be a force against disinformation and civic decline, are:
- learning deep historical context which informs our work, and building a culture of historical research — and the time to do it — into our newsrooms.
- treating white nationalists/supremacists like any other interview subjects should be treated… which is to say, covered fairly and accurately, and not skipping the story because it’s too hot or too scary, or because some assume it’s too marginal. (It’s not. White nationalists/supremacists are skilled political organizers and should be covered as such.)
- reporting on rural white communities and on all lower- and working-income white communities with cultural competency, not condescension.
- covering power as morally neutral, and not automatically valorizing people who hold it. Likewise, avoiding covering people without institutional power from a deficit framework.
- reporting on communities of color with greater detail and complexity, and without the fearful pseudo-scientific gaze which gave us hits like “crack babies” and “superpredators.” (Both of those were disinformation which abetted the weaponization of racial animus.)
- Being careful not to amplify disinformation instead of debunking it.
There’s a tremendous opportunity to re-center newsrooms on our core mission of telling the truth, and doing it better than we’ve done in the past five years. There are a vast array of open or about-to-open leadership positions in contemporary media: CNN, ABC News, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and Reuters, just to name a few. This is the moment for the industry to ask incoming hires what they can and will do to commit to covering a divided America with cultural competency. If these new top hires can commit to that path, they can help shift the entire industry. There almost certainly will be another xenophobic and authoritarian candidate in America’s future, in part due to the leeway given our most recent one. We must cover them better next time.
And we must stand in our truth now, no matter how painful. We can’t wait decades for a reckoning about how we as an industry profited from disinformation and suppressed stories about the rising power of weaponized racial resentment. We are finding out how deeply white nationalists have used their positions in the military and police forces, and even in the halls of Congress, to push a profoundly anti-democratic agenda. We journalists need to turn our work of fact-finding, analysis and inquiry on ourselves, and do it now. Reforming our newsrooms requires will, compassion, heart, and risk. Lives are at stake. Democracy is at stake. At a time when we are questioning all the systems of society, journalism cannot be too prideful to examine itself.