Opinion: Trying to fight, not spread, fear and lies

Something continues to nag at me about the midterm elections.

It’s the way we in the news media too often allowed ourselves to be manipulated by President Donald Trump to heighten fears about the immigrant caravan from Central America so as to benefit Republican candidates. Obviously there were many journalists who pushed back on the president’s narrative, but on the whole I’m afraid news organizations became a channel for carefully calculated fearmongering about refugees.

We in the media have, quite rightly, aggressively covered the failings of Facebook and other social media in circulating lies that manipulated voters. That’s justified: We should hold executives’ feet to the fire when they pursue profits in ways that undermine the integrity of our electoral system.

The problem is that too often we in the media engage in the same kind of profit chasing. The news business model is in part about attracting eyeballs, and cable television in particular sees that as long as the topic is Trump, revenues follow. So when Trump makes false statements about America being invaded by Central American refugees, he not only gets coverage, but also manages to control the media agenda.

At a recent Trilateral Commission conference in Silicon Valley, there was discussion of the irresponsibility of internet companies in modern democracy — but also tough words about the role of the mainstream media. Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and elections expert, told me that in 2016, Russians used mainstream media to manipulate voters even more successfully than they used Facebook.

In general, as I’ve written many times, I thought that we in the media (especially cable television) fumbled 2016 but then had a much better 2017 and 2018 — until we let ourselves be used to elevate lies about the caravan to the top of the agenda. We even knew we were being manipulated and we still let it happen: As we expected, Trump lost interest in the caravan after ballots were cast and the topic faded.

Solutions are complicated, for there may well be a public interest in seeing purloined material; if Trump’s tax returns showed up in my mailbox, I would report on them even if I thought that China had stolen them and was using me to undermine the White House. Likewise, we do have to cover what a president says, even if it’s false, bigoted or demagogic — but I think we can try harder to make crystal clear the efforts at manipulating the public.

One challenge is that fact-checking doesn’t work very well. Social psychology experiments have found that when people are presented with factual corrections that contradict their beliefs, they may cling to mistaken beliefs more strongly than ever. This is called the “backfire effect.”

We’ve managed effective fact-checking at crucial junctures in the past: The great Edward R. Murrow deflated Joseph McCarthy, and some heroic news reporters (often from the South) covered the civil rights struggle in ways that changed attitudes rather than reinforcing prejudices.

So let’s start asking ourselves the tough questions we ask of Facebook and others. We must try harder to avoid becoming a channel to spread disinformation, hatred or lies.

Writes for The New York Times.