Media play dumb and amplify Jan. 6 lies
When journalists sidestep the truth, MAGA disinformation wins
It’s been a bad start to 2024 for Americans who depend on the news media to inform them. Instead, major media have expressed cluelessness about one of the most important events in modern American history – the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Of course, the media aren’t really clueless. They’re just pretending to be. Which is just as bad, if not worse.
On Thursday, the Associated Press wrote this both-sides headline: “One attack, two interpretations: Biden and Trump both make the Jan. 6 riot a political rallying cry.”
On Sunday, USA Today chimed in with this outrageous lead: “For Donald Trump, Jan. 6, 2021, was ‘a beautiful day.’ For Joe Biden, it was the day ‘we nearly lost America.’” And then USA Today proceeded with a story that acted as if it didn’t know which view was more valid.
In between those two examples of performative ignorance, the New York Times weighed in with its own “dueling realities” spin:
These news outlets know who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. But they’re afraid to tell the public directly. In the Times’ case, its headline got roasted on social media (including by me), and was later rewritten:
Who knows whether public criticism prompted the Times’ rewrite, but it does give us hope that pressure for truth-telling can work. Political journalists are still trying to find a “safe space” and convey the facts at the same time. Which is impossible. So they need to stop playing dumb in an attempt to play it safe.
The topper came Sunday morning when Kristen Welker interviewed MAGA Rep. Elise Stefanik on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and allowed her to refer to people jailed for Jan. 6 crimes as “hostages.” Welker never pushed back on that term. Major media are deeply afraid of positioning themselves as the opposition to fascist Republicans, so they keep providing a platform for them to lie to the public.
The media’s timidity comes at a terrible time, as we head into an election year in which right-wing disinformation is likely to get worse. Clearly, Republicans consider lying to be just another form of political activity, like campaign signs in people’s yards. To them, telling the truth is a sign of weakness or laziness. Their attitude is: If you’re not lying, you’re not trying.
This dishonesty has developed frightening momentum. When the right pushed its Big Lie disputing the results of the 2020 election, it spawned a coup attempt and a torrent of lies about that insurrection – the claim that it was an “inside job,” that Capitol police were “crisis actors,” that it was Nancy Pelosi’s fault, etc., etc. It’s a blockchain of bullshit, with each new lie supporting the previous lies.
This kind of cumulative dishonesty is powerful, and made more so by MAGA’s tremendous stamina. The Washington Post ran a smart story last week about Gateway Pundit, which is a favorite “news” outlet for Trump because it’s the entry point for many hoaxes that are picked up by other right-wing outlets. You might think that after years and years of Gateway Pundit being debunked for its blatant lies, it would lose influence. But as the Post reported, it’s still going strong.
Lack of shame is Republicans’ superpower. They ignore fact checks just as they ignore facts, so nothing gets effectively debunked. Clearly, fact-checking isn’t enough. We need fact-crusading. Journalists must directly confront liars and make them look bad, preferably in real time on national television. They must exact a cost for dishonesty. So far, they rarely do. Welker certainly didn’t on Sunday. Instead, Stefanik owned her.
While Gateway Pundit keeps street fighting, Fox News keeps carpet bombing. Fox had to pay a $787 million judgment after internal communications revealed that it intentionally spread lies about the 2020 election. That probably made Fox more careful about its emails and texts, but it didn’t make Fox more truthful. It’s still talking about “rising crime” even though violent crime is plummeting. It’s still talking about Biden’s “crippling energy agenda” while U.S. oil production keeps setting all-time records.
Add to this the fact that disinformation is increasingly welcome in social media.
Elon Musk has turned Twitter/X into a sewer. Alex Jones, who lost a $1.1 billion defamation case for his disgusting smears about the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, was recently welcomed back to X. Anti-Semitic posts are permitted, such as the absurd claim that 78% of slaveholders in the antebellum South were Jews. Musk argues that he’s promoting the truth by posting “Community Notes” corrections underneath the lies. But that’s like letting a building burn and then erecting a sign on the smoldering ashes that says, “Careful – it’s hot.”
Other tech companies such as Meta and YouTube also have loosened their standards on misinformation. For example, YouTube used to remove videos with false claims about the 2020 election. Now it allows them. Look for mischief-makers to use deepfakes to spread hoaxes and mistrust as this election year proceeds.
Meanwhile, many people have gotten comfortable with Trump’s lying. It’s like the sun setting in the west – not considered newsworthy. Yet the lies still hold charm for the cult. As a Trump supporter put it at a 2020 rally, “We all tell little lies. [Politicians] all lie.” In his opinion, Trump was simply “the most entertaining liar.”
There’s a great danger that mainstream media will find safety in the entertainment of politics, in repeating the lies and later fact-checking them, and never telling the clear, blunt story that the Republican Party is plotting to overthrow our democracy.
I’m especially worried that the media will go soft in the later stages of the presidential campaign – that they’ll drop any warnings about a Trump dictatorship to avoid appearing partisan.
The media need to understand that a Trump presidency would be a disaster for them, not just for the public. If Trump wins and the media are invited to a White House dinner, they won’t have a seat at the table – they’ll be escorted into the kitchen and thrown into the pot.