I spent 2019 and half of 2020 taking a hiatus from journalism to serve as a campaign speechwriter, but I’ll admit: I’m not much for most political speeches — flowery odes to unity, purpose, and the American spirit tend to make me feel drowsy, which (fine, call my cynical) is usually their intended anesthetizing effect.
But there was one meaningful passage in President Joe Biden’s inaugural address that spoke to me as a journalist — a passage many media outlets interpreted as a shot at his predecessor, but which was also an inadvertent-but-necessary indictment of our civic culture, the news media, and public officials, including Biden himself.
“There is truth and there are lies — lies told for power and for profit,” Biden said. “And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders — leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation — to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
Donald Trump was the obvious target of this dis — and he surely deserves it. Trump is a pathological liar who seemed to enjoy lying even when there was no reason to lie. With the help of right-wing media, he weaponized the White House megaphone to depict fantastical fabrications as inherent truth to the point where large swaths of the country believe demonstrably untrue statements are indisputable facts.
But Trump was less an anomaly than an extrapolation of a worsening culture of lying. He capped off an era that saw icons of both parties lie the country into a war that killed a million people, and then saw those liars rewarded with status, power, and wealth. It was an epoch that saw financial firms deceive America into an economic collapse, then saw Wall Street moguls bailed out as millions suffered — all while a Democratic president pretended, and continues to insinuate, that nobody actually committed any crimes. It was a time period that saw a political system tolerate — and at times tout — fossil fuel industry lies that created a climate crisis that now imperils all life on Earth.
Trump was defeated by an opponent who may not be a pathological liar, but who serially lies. Biden not only promoted the lies that led America into the Iraq War and was not only part of an administration that let Wall Street off the hook for its fraud — he also more recently repeatedly lied about his public record and promises throughout the Democratic primary. At one particularly illustrative moment, Biden was asked if he ever gave Senate floor speeches touting Social Security cuts, and he flatly denied it — just brazenly lying.
During the primary, I recall being somewhat surprised not by Biden’s lying, but by the Trump-esque quality of his lying, and the media’s tolerance for it. This wasn’t artful spin or word parsing to circumvent uncomfortable topics. This was unapologetic, straight-to-camera bullshitting about the biggest issues of the day, and it evoked barely a sigh from the press corps covering the campaign — a sign that something has fundamentally changed.
The Misinformation System
There’s an old adage that you know a politician is lying because you see their lips moving — but this culture of lying, built up over decades, is something different. Three decades after Bill Clinton was quite literally impeached for lying, lying is ubiquitous. We don’t experience momentary storms of fabrications or untruths — deceit is now the entire environment in which politics exists. As another famous aphorism goes: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident” — but this environment has eliminated the third stage.
Tech platforms are a big part of the problem — and they have rightly been blamed for algorithmically boosting lies. But the news media has played an equally pernicious role, turning masthead mottos like “Democracy Dies In Darkness” into a sad punchline at billionaire-owned news outlets that have often been purveyors of said darkness.
For the most part, the national press corps gave its stamp of approval to the lies that led us into the Iraq War — and gave lifetime media platforms to the proponents of those lies. The press corps also fell down on the job of patrolling Wall Street’s house of lies that led to the financial crisis. And there was little effort by the media to debunk the fossil fuel industry lies that threaten the survival of the human species.
The cottage industry of fact-checking was supposed to fix things, and there has been some good work there. However, all too often fact-checkers have been caught either using pedantic false equivalences to cover up politicians’ lies — or just wildly lying themselves.
All of this has shifted the Overton Window about the truth itself — the sheer volume of high-profile, over-the-top fabrications have so normalized spectacular lying that lower-profile forms of dishonesty are no longer even considered newsworthy, as evidenced by the most recent legislative battle in Congress.
There, hardly any media called out Republican senators wildly lying about $2,000 survival checks for starving people supposedly being “about helping millionaires and billionaires.” Some newspaper editorial boards and high-profile columnists made the same garbage arguments. The press corps has similarly eye rolled suggestions that Democrats were being a tad dishonest when they explicitly promised new $2,000 checks before saying they only actually meant $1,400 the whole time.
We’re so inured to this kind of deceit that in many quarters, assaulting the truth is now seen as an acceptable — even laudable — weapon of political combat against journalists. Spend a few minutes on Twitter, and you’ll find Democratic activists trolling and berating journalists who dare to report any inconvenient truths about Democratic politicians, just as you’ll find MAGA activists doing the same (or worse) to journalists who report critically on Republicans.
In other words, you will find the “uncivil war” that Biden lamented in his speech yesterday.
For news organizations, this dynamic created both difficult choices but also facile deflections in the Trump era.
You could uncritically transcribe the president’s lies and gain White House access, or you could stand against them and face persecution from the MAGA army. You could get yourself a cable TV news slot and social media accolades for loyally defending Democrats’ lies and corruption in the name of stopping Trump, or you could report honestly about the opposition party’s bullshit and face accusations of complicity with an authoritarian president. But through it all, you could always swat away legitimate questions about media misinformation by dishonestly equating earnest critics to bad-faith Trump accomplices and screaming “fake news.”
The transition from Trump to Biden flips the dynamic: Amplifying Republican lies will get you access to the right-wing media megaphone, and transcribing or rationalizing Democratic deceit will get you Biden administration scoops, MSNBC bookings, and approving retweets from the blue bot army. Debunking GOP lies will get you flipped off by the red bot army, while holding Democrats accountable to their promises will prompt Brunch Liberals to accuse you of harshing their mimosas.
Meanwhile, persistent concerns about the power-worshiping elitism embedded in billionaire-owned media can continue to be marginalized by just equating the criticism to an illiberal assault on the First Amendment.
The particular rewards and feedback loops are different because the power equation has changed — but the incentives to bury the truth remain as powerful and lucrative as ever.
The Things We Think And Do Not Say
The film Jerry Maguire is a cautionary tale that warns against ever writing down a mission statement — in a culture of lying, lots of people don’t like anyone voicing the things we think and do not say.
And yet, the beginning of a new presidential administration seems as good a time as any for media outlets to look themselves in the mirror and state their purpose. We will each have to decide whether to be on the side of all the incentives to lie, or to be on the side of reporting the truth — and sorry, you can’t be on both.
The reason we launched the Daily Poster as a grassroots-funded, reader-supported organization is because we wanted to structure a news outlet in a way that can defy these perverse incentives. We have shown time and time again that we will follow the money, scrutinize politicians, dig up the documents everyone ignores, read the fine print that nobody wants to read, and generally surface uncomfortable truths — no matter which powerbrokers, political parties, or army of social media warriors that pisses off.
This mission is not without its downsides. We probably will not be spoon fed scoops from Biden’s administration, nor will we be on the invite lists for Georgetown cocktail confabs or even their Zoom calls. We almost certainly will elicit the ire of thousands of recently launched, identical Twitter accounts with blue wave emojis in their profiles. And yes, we will be routinely vilified as party poopers, downers, grifters and every other cheap-shot insult crafted to depict basic journalism as detestable deviance.
Will this project be sustainable or will it fail? So far, it has been successful, thanks to thousands of subscribers who want the truth. Over the long haul, though, it is difficult to know what the future holds — the system of deception and misinformation is pervasive, powerful, and pitted against endeavors like this. And I will admit that on my darker days — the days of demoralization and despair — this work of fact finding and truth telling feels like we are naively trying to piss facts into an ocean of mendacity.
On my better days, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. Politicians will always lie, but journalists and our larger society don’t have to just accept that. The normalization of deceit already got us the death and destruction of the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and a climate emergency — and it will get us even more bloodshed if we continue to see lying as just another acceptable tactic in a never-ending information war.
But that’s the thing: It is our choice, not destiny. We don’t have to agree on ideology or policy, and we don’t have to take some magical red pill to wake up from a Matrix. We can simply choose to agree that deception, corruption, and outright lying is unacceptable, even when “our” side is doing it.
I don’t know if that’s a pipe dream in a moment when consensus seems impossible, but I do know we can at least guarantee something in our own reporting: We will always maintain an enduring belief that the day-to-day work of journalism isn’t worth it if you are just fortifying the clickbait culture of deceit. Indeed, as the new president put it yesterday, each of us has a responsibility “to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
We should all heed that call to action, even if it comes from a politician who has not always honored that creed. Now, we must force him to live by it.