A central tenet of journalistic standards is that reporting must strive to be accurate and truthful. And presenting the truth is crucial not only to the integrity of news journalism but also to the proper functioning of our entire democratic society itself.
Indeed, the role of the press is so critical to our society that it has been characterized as the Fourth Estate signifying that it's essential to the proper operation of government even though it's not a formal branch.
The press provides transparency to citizens by discovering and disclosing the real truth about what elected officials are doing. During an election campaign, the press performs a form of vetting for the electorate, bringing to light the truth about candidates so voters can make an informed decision at the ballot box. For television journalists, a crucial component in their presentation of the truth involves the quality of their on-air guests and commentators. Normally, the television programs vet their guests to ensure a high level of personal integrity and honesty.
The Trump candidacy, however, has thrown a flying monkey wrench into the works.The Trump campaign has dispatched representatives or surrogates to appear on television programs to speak on behalf of Trump. The television programs effectively have no choice but to allow them to appear. Otherwise, the programs would be accused of being biased against Trump. But this presents an ethical dilemma for the producers of the TV programs because these on-air Trump representatives are entirely unmoored from the truth. They have no compunction whatsoever about appearing on-air and disseminating egregious distortions, misdirections and flat-out false information.
This is partially due to the fact that Trump himself peddles false information, so his representatives must then defend Trump’s false statements. And there are quite a lot of them. One analysis determined that Trump’s statements are false or mostly false a whopping 78 percent of the time.
Normally, if a guest traffics in false information, that guest would not be welcomed back. But in this case, the programs have no choice. These guests are the official representatives of the Republican presidential candidate, so the programs must allow them to repeatedly appear.
This places the programs in a very difficult ethical situation. To safeguard their reputations and uphold the journalistic standard of accuracy, these programs cannot just sit by idly and allow their regular guests to disseminate false information. But at the same time, these programs were not designed to be rigorous fact-checkers in real time of their guests. It is plain to see that these programs and their hosts, are struggling with this predicament.
One example is the CNN prime-time program, “Anderson Cooper 360.” The program features segments with panels of guests that often include Trump representatives or supporters, such as Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes and Corey Lewandowski.
Anderson Cooper appears to be keenly aware of the importance of striving to uphold journalistic integrity, and he deserves plaudits for performing yeoman’s work in attempting to counterbalance the onslaught of specious information. But the burden is too great for one man alone to bear.
The army of Trump surrogates seems to be everywhere. It consists mostly of a B-list cast of characters, like Katrina Pierson, Omarosa Manigault and Pastor Mark Burns, likely because A-list Republican figures decline to participate for fear of tarnishing their reputations. But nonetheless some nationally known Republicans have joined the circus, such as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Ben Carson.
The various television programs have resorted to several methods to attempt to address the problem of false information being disseminated through their shows. One method is to simultaneously include guests who offer opposing or balancing viewpoints to appear along with the Trump representatives. Normally, this is effective. But in the realm of Trump, it falls short.
One reason it falls short is due to the sheer volume of false information and the extent to which much of it is so outlandishly false. Another reason is because these balancing guests are just not professional fact-checkers. And they are also not experts at detecting the dark art of deception and debunking it all in real time. This is simply too much to ask of them.
Another method that some programs have employed is displaying a banner along the bottom of the screen that corrects in real time misinformation being spoken by a guest on screen. This is quite extraordinary. CNN ran a banner displaying, “Trump: I Never Said Japan Should Have Nukes (He Did),” and another declaring, “Trump’s Son: Father Apologized to Khans (He Hasn’t).” MSNBC ran a banner stating, “Trump Says He Watched (Nonexistent) Video of Iran Receiving Cash.” And the NBC Nightly News displayed the headline, “Trump Falsely Claims Obama Founded ISIS.”
While these banners are excellent when they're used, they are insufficient because too much false information is being disseminated to be corrected by banners. Another method is for a show’s staff members to attempt to fact-check a statement immediately after it's spoken on air and then report a correction to the show’s host via the earpiece. So occasionally a host will refer back to a statement previously made by a guest, announce that the show has fact-checked the statement and then provide the correction.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow recently took matters a step further. When Maddow realized that the Trump representative, Kellyanne Conway, had apparently lied on her show, she took to the airwaves on a subsequent program and flatly called out Conway for lying. Wow.These on-air corrections are great, but they just cannot keep up with the volume of inaccurate information.
So the Trump representatives are able to get away with putting out plenty of false information and distortions that remain unchallenged.
Another little ethical problem is the danger of the false equivalency. When Trump representatives without regard for journalistic standards continue to appear on mainstream programs — alongside highly reputable guests who are there to counterbalance the false information — the overall effect is to elevate Trump's representatives to a status equivalent to that of the reputable guests. It bestows upon Trump's representatives a level of legitimacy they don't deserve.
The false information dispensed by Trump's representatives is also elevated to a status higher than it deserves as it appears to be the equivalent of the true material furnished by reputable guests. And thus false information suddenly appears legitimate.
The end result of all of this is mainstream television programs suffer an erosion of their journalistic integrity.
The truth-free barbarity of the Fox News Channel has infiltrated the mainstream media.