On February 27, 1968, the country’s most trusted journalist broke his typically unflinching objectivity. He had seen enough, and deemed it his duty to warn the American public on a matter sliding toward national tragedy: The Vietnam War.
To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion… It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
- Walter Cronkite
It was no coincidence that, little more than a month later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided not to seek reelection. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson said in the days leading up to his March 31 national address, “I’ve lost Middle America.”
A lone anchorman, then, weighed heavily in convincing Johnson—famously among the most competitive politicians in history—that it was game over. Today, it seems almost unbelievable to consider the impact of a single journalist, even one of Cronkite’s stature and credibility.
In Cronkite’s day, there was no Internet to support limitless, unqualified opinions and spread innumerable lies and agenda-driven misinformation. There were no cable news networks to mask political partisanship as objective journalism. Americans got their news almost exclusively from mainstream newspapers, news magazines, and major-network television and radio programs.
Today’s faux-journalism—custom-tailored information fueled by confirmation bias—simply was not possible, because sources, household names like CBS, The New York Times, and Newsweek, catered to huge swaths of the American public. Their only real competitors were other formidable entities like NBC, The Associated Press, and Time. Since their reach was so broad, undue subjectivity risked alienating significant portions of their audiences – so too much slant was bad for business.
It was in the media’s best interests, then, to report in a straightforward fashion that, though by no means perfect, was both factual and widely consumed. As a result, an overwhelming majority of Americans got their news from trustworthy sources and, in turn, were informed with actual facts rather than invented ones.
America may not, as Trump posits, have been greater back then, but its sources certainly were. Technology had not yet turned us into a society divided by misinformation. If you can’t agree on facts, you can’t agree on action; the serial liar that is our current President is but an exclamation point on a cautionary tale that has unfolded over decades.
A “Fact Front” Against Falsehood
It is no exaggeration that the most compulsively dishonest person ever to run for national office now occupies the White House. According to PolitiFact, an incredible 70 percent of statements Donald Trump made during his campaign were false. Only 4% were deemed totally true, and 11% mostly true.
Now that he’s the most powerful man in the world, the current status-quo of react-and-report is no longer sustainable. Trump’s rapid-fire falsehoods still have fact-checkers playing an absurd game of Whack-a-Mole, except now the orange-haired varmints have federal funding and nuclear codes. Trump’s victory was, at least partly, journalism’s failure.
The Fourth Estate must find a smarter, more effective strategy. They, the media—and we, the people—are in desperate need of a coalition of mainstream journalists who, through concerted and consistent defiance in the name of truth, combine to form something approaching the resounding megaphone Cronkite wielded half a century ago.
This coalition must be exceedingly massive. Considering Trump won the presidency despite endorsements from just two of the country’s top 100 newspapers, the effort would need to be unprecedented in breadth, and involve partnership between prominent print, broadcast and online players. Counteracting a media master—and, via Twitter, media circumventor—like Trump will require teamwork to the point of active, unabashed collusion.
The collaboration must also be mainstream. To be effectively credible, it must comprise not just centrist newspapers and anchorpersons, but influential talk show hosts as well. Americans must see our most marketable media personalities stick their necks out—their personal bottom lines be damned—for the sake of combating this singularly unacceptable moment in modern history. I’m looking at you, Jimmy Fallon, Michael Strahan and Matt Lauer.
Finally, the effort must be elongated and unwavering. Cronkite polished off LBJ in a single newscast leading into election season. The newly installed Trump will need to be truth-trolled over months, even years. His followers, largely brainwashed by conservative news outlets to dismiss widely reported facts, require long-term reprogramming.
Unlikely? Certainly. Unethical? Certainly not. Calling a liar a liar is morally sound. And when that liar is the leader of the free world, it’s mandatory.
It also could be effective. Even if the effort is 10% successful, it would land a deathblow to Trump’s reelection chances. After receiving nearly three million less votes than his opponent in 2016, hemorrhaging any support whatsoever from his base would make victory in 2020 highly implausible.
Traditional fact-checking tactics will not constrain a man as unhinged, uninformed and, as of January 20, uniquely powerful as Donald Trump. By insufficiently muting Trump’s bullying bullhorn during the campaign, the media abetted our deliverance to the brink of disaster.
The result is a federal four-alarm fire, and reputable journalists, already burned, must unite to fight it as such. Business as usual will not suffice. Desperate times call for drastic media.