The mainstream media is winning the war against “fake news”

Why “factual truth” matters so much in fraught times

Published August 23, 2023 5:31AM (EDT)

Donald Trump watching Fox News (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Fox News)
Donald Trump watching Fox News (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Fox News)

On Sunday, a CBS-YouGov poll reported something stunning about the effect of Donald Trump's disinformation on his committed voters: They trust him more as a source of truth than they believe their families or religious leaders.

For the American majority living in the fact-based world, that polling merely reinforces something we've long known about Trump's followers: They are like a cult, and cult members are largely impervious to truth.

But more importantly, the resolute credulity of Trump's MAGA core reminds us of the importance of speaking, publishing and posting accurate and reliable information accessible to the rest of the country. "[T]he whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life . . . is always in danger of being . . . torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes…" Arendt, her biographer has written, called facts and events "factual truth,which "serves as common ground to stand on."

Continuing to expose "factual truth" keeps the American majority in the world of reality where democracy lives and breathes.  In this realm, engaged citizens, the fourth estate, and the justice system are aligned in the goal of preserving our constitutional republic. People with their feet on the ground can distinguish fact from fiction, witch hunts from legitimate prosecutions of a former president determined, in his own words, to "terminate the constitution."

In dictatorships, autocrats first seize control of the sources of information, particularly newspapers, television stations, and channels of social media.  This is a worldwide strategy.  But in the U.S., not only do we have a rigorous First Amendment guarantee of free press, but data show that there are ample sources of accurate information to counter Trump's drumbeat of "big lies." This is particularly important for the prospects of enabling the American voters to make an informed choice in 2024 based upon access to truthful information about the character and behavior of the competing candidates – to the extent that the voters care about such matters, as the Framers of the Constitution expected that they would.

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One key test is the source of information that voters can consider when they go into the voting booth to cast their ballots.  Here there is a terra firma for reassurance:  Despite the intensity and frequency of phony assertions that Donald Trump is the innocent victim of a "witch hunt" and that the Justice Department has been "weaponized" — along with, in their wild view,  the Fulton County, Georgia, grand jury — most Americans have ready access to accurate information about the charges and the underlying basis for the charges.

It may surprise many Americans that the "mainstream media," which are not in Trump's thrall, provide the vast bulk of news reporting to which voters have access.

A right-leaning survey asserts that the news coverage of all four of the four national newspapers are "leaning left" (NY Times, Washington Post, and USA Today) or "center" (Wall Street Journal).  In reality, that means that they are mainly focused on the center or, in the case of the Journal, the rational right. That the far-right views the three national television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) plus NPR as "left-leaning" also translates as them focusing on the moderate middle audience. The national news magazines (Time and Newsweek) are similarly evaluated as leaning left or center, as are major streaming services such as AP, Axios, Politico, Bloomberg, The Hill, and Yahoo News.  Not surprisingly, two of the major cable news outlets are identified as leaning left (CNN) and or just plain left (MSNBC).

Only Fox News, Fox Business, the New York Post and such extremist streaming services as Breitbart and Newsmax are seen as "right" or "leaning right," and those are the Trump-friendly sources.

While fewer and fewer voters are reading newspapers or news magazines, it is nevertheless reassuring that far more Americans are getting their news from the "mainstream media" – including the national television networks – than from pro-Trump cable outlets such as FOX. For example, the majority of cable viewers are in the 65+ demographic.  In prime time, Fox in 2023 averages about 2.2 million nightly viewers in all age groups, including just under 300,000 in the key voting demographic of 25-54.  The combined viewership of CNN and MSNBC is only slightly smaller (about 1.7 million and 240,000) What is more significant than this rough equivalence between Trump-friendly and Trump-skeptical cable outlets is that their viewership pales beside the reach of the far more objective national television network news shows.

The numbers are stark and compelling.  Compared with Fox's primetime viewership of barely two million, the nightly news programs of the three national networks averaged about 18 million viewers during the first week of this month.  ABC had 7.4 million pairs of ears and eyeballs tuned in, and even the smallest of the nightly news shows, at CBS, averaged twice as many viewers (4.3 million) as FOX. In every demographic, more Americans watched network news than cable news.  In two significant cohorts, 45-64 and 65+, network news viewership outstripped cable by margins of  28/25 and 43/32 respectively. 

A similar story is told when one checks on the online sources of news that Americans consult.  The top two news sites visited by Americans seeking information are two sites that, unlike Fox, are not completely in the tank for Trump — the NY Times with 418 million average monthly visits and CNN with 400 million. Americans also understand that the business model of many cable news outlets induces them to cater to one political perspective or another.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, most Americans have more trust in what they read in their newspapers or see on network news shows than they do in cable news. In the same vein, one needs only to be paying a bit of attention to place the least trust in what we read on algorithm-driven social media feeds, despite their popularity. Thus, there is a basis for optimism that accuracy about facts informs most Americans' perceptions.

Even before the most recent federal and the Georgia indictments alleging Trump's criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election, 84% of independents thought Trump had behaved illegally or unethically. hose realities are sinking in, even on Trump's Republican competitors. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, not one inclined to risk antagonizing Trump's base, has suddenly acknowledged that the 2020 election was not stolen. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who also has been careful not to offend the MAGA base, has opined that the January 6 indictment shows why Trump should never be president again.

This advance in truth occurs because we have honest journalism, print and electronic, that regular citizens read and watch.  Ferocious but objective mainstream journalists' commitment to reporting factual truth, as in bomb-shell pieces like this or this, brings real knowledge into the majority's public consciousness. 

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To borrow Justice Louis Brandeis' words before he joined the Supreme Court, more sunlight is "the best of disinfectants." That applies with force to a would-be autocrat like Trump who spreads disinformation like fresh fertilizer on fertile MAGA-base fundraising soil. Fortunately, our judicial institutions have long-protected access to candid and hard-hitting information about political figures, recognizing that facts matter, and the public is entitled to evaluate competing views.

Fifty years ago, one of us (Lacovara), argued U.S. v. Nixon, the White House Tapes case, against the only other modern-day president who sought – less persistently than Trump to be sure – to derail our constitution. Nixon's lawyer argued to the Court that his taped conversations were protected from the independent prosecutor's office by executive privilege. In the hearing, the Court raised questions about the potential for abuse, because the president had been named as a co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up indictment. The answer given to that question remains relevant today: "As this Court regularly holds in first amendment cases dealing with public officials, . . . we have a resilient society where people can be trusted to sort out truth from falsehoods."

When the Court rejected Nixon's claim, the tapes turned out to uncover the smoking gun evidence of criminal conspiracy inside the White House. The public sorted it out, and our system ultimately returned itself to constitutionalism in the executive branch for more than four decades. Today's court has followed the executive privilege precedent of its predecessors.  In January 2022, for example, the court rejected Trump's claim to privilege and ordered disclosure to the House January 6 committee of White House documents relating to its investigation. The special counsel's parallel investigation led this month to a D.C. grand jury indictment of the former president for his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election. He faces three other indictments that also have been widely reported and detailed. While Trump's extraordinary distortion of facts has co-opted a faithful coterie, the MAGA core is relatively small. 

We have every reason to keep our faith in the good judgment of the American people – if we have access to enough factual information "to sort out truth from falsehoods. We do. The antidote to would-be autocrats is the "mainstream media," protected by the First Amendment. More truth is the remedy for falsity.  Broad access to the facts is what enables informed voters to ensure that we keep a government of, by, and for the people.

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

By Philip Allen Lacovara

Philip Allen Lacovara was Counsel to the Watergate Special Prosecutor. Deputy Solicitor General of the United States, and President of the District of Columbia Bar.

MORE FROM Philip Allen Lacovara

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