Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Media organizations risk their existences when they allow demonstrated liars to use their platforms. Customers seek facts from media organizations. Astrologers, charlatans, and frauds—including liars—do not produce facts. Thus, when a media organization allows liars on its platform, its customers will stop seeking news there. Only by banishing liars can media organizations retain their customers.
News includes only new facts
Media consumers read and watch news to learn new facts. The very word “news” initially described “new things”1—which reflects “new facts.” Anything else qualifies as tabloid fiction. Journalists have historically acted as fact gatekeepers by confirming all facts with two reliable sources before presenting them.2 That duty does not dissolve when a journalist possesses a record of a source stating a lie. As one journalist described the situation, “Our job is not stenography, but truth-telling.”3
Lies do not qualify as news
When a media organization invites a liar onto its platform to present false reports, it violates its commitment to its consumers to present only new facts. For example, on the January 22, 2017, edition of Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway unabashedly argued that “alternative facts” showed more people attended President Trump’s inauguration than President Obama’s 2008 inauguration.4
She flat lied. Putting her on any news show again may boost ratings in the short-term, but will only erode that news show’s viewership in the long run. While lies may make great television, they present tabloid fiction. Fiction, or fake news, does not qualify as “news” that consumers seek.
If a media organization does not ban demonstrated liars, consumers will see that organization as a tabloid and stop patronizing it. Some journalists understand that risk. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski preserved their Morning Joe program’s integrity by banning Conway. As Scarborough explained, “It got to a point where Kellyanne would keep coming out and everything she said was disproven like five minutes later.”5
Scarborough explained to Stephen Colbert why he banished Kellyanne Conway
Some media organizations decline to take a stand against liars. That ambivalence has undermined Americans’ faith in them.6 Media organizations did not learn from the 2016 election how to handle liars. They are still tying themselves in knots to avoid biased reports on the Trump Administration.7
Media organizations are wasting their time. Demanding factual accuracy cannot possibly cause bias because bias measures a different metric than factual accuracy. Presenting only argument from one side generates a biased article. But facts do not qualify as arguments. Thus, an article that presented only the arguments in favor of free trade would create a biased article. But an article that repeated false facts about trade balances would not generate a biased report; it would present a false report.
[U]ntrustworthy evidence should not be presented to the triers of fact. – United States Supreme Court
Handling nested lies
Only by separating the act of lying from the nested lies can media organizations provide reliable facts. The law provides a template for drawing that distinction. One may argue that Ms. Conway’s false statements qualify as facts: “Ms. Conway stated X.” To be sure, if she stated X, her statement reflects one fact, but that does not demonstrate that X is true. A second assertion nests within the first assertion. Courts long ago developed hearsay rules precisely to exclude from the courtroom nested hearsay statements because of the risk of the witness lying.8 The Supreme Court explained that courts grounded the hearsay rule “in the notion that untrustworthy evidence should not be presented to the triers of fact.”9 The same principle requires media organizations to banish proven charlatans. Then, they will not present untrustworthy evidence to consumers.
If the source is lying, and if a media organization concludes that act of lying itself presents a significant fact, that situation does not require it to convey that record of lying to its consumers. The media organization can state the fact without replaying the lie. CNN initially handled well White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s January 21, 2017, press conference. When the White House declined to inform the media of the topic, CNN declined to air it live.10 Thus, CNN avoided airing live Spicer deliberately lying about the size of the crowd that attended the inauguration. It avoided airing the lie.
Media organizations can preserve their customers in only one way: banish proven liars. Only by following that rule can a media organization preserve the only coin of their realm: reliable, new facts.
2 David Brewer, The importance of fact-checking for journalists (Oct. 26, 2011), at http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/training-resources/journalism-basics/640-fact-checking-separates-journalism-from-rumour-and-gossip (“The two reliable sources rule”).
3 Nicholas Kristof, How to Cover a Charlatan Like Trump, New York Times (Sept. 24, 2016), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion/sunday/how-to-cover-a-charlatan-like-trump.html?_r=0
4 Meet the Press, Conway: Press Secretary Gave ‘Alternative Facts’ (Jan. 22, 2017), available at http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/conway-press-secretary-gave-alternative-facts-860142147643.
5 Cleve R. Wootson Jr., ‘Morning Joe’ host says Kellyanne Conway was banned because ‘everything she said was disproven,’ Washington Post (Feb. 22, 2017), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/22/morning-joe-host-says-kellyanne-conway-was-banned-because-everything-she-said-was-disproven.
6 Pew Research Center, the Modern News Consumer, Trust and accuracy (July 7, 2016), at http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/trust-and-accuracy.
7 Joe Concha, Media’s bumbling and bias invites conflict with Trump, the Hill (Jan. 23, 2017), at http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/media/315686-medias-bumbling-and-bias-invites-conflict-with-trump; Conor Friedersdorf, The Exaggerated Claims of Media Bias Against Donald Trump, the Atlantic (Aug. 16, 2016), available at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/claims-of-media-bias-against-donald-trump-are-exaggerated/495977; John Sides, Is the media biased toward Clinton or Trump? Here is some actual hard data, Washington Post (Sept. 20, 2016), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/09/20/is-the-media-biased-toward-clinton-or-trump-heres-some-actual-hard-data/?utm_term=.da7d9eb85c80.
8 See Federal Rule of Evidence 805 (prohibiting “[h]earsay within hearsay”), available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/rule_805; Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 298 (1973) (“Out-of-court statements are traditionally excluded because they lack the conventional indicia of reliability: they are usually not made under oath or other circumstances that impress the speaker with the solemnity of his statements; the declarant’s word is not subject to cross-examination; and he is not available in order that his demeanor and credibility may be assessed by the jury.”).
9 Chambers, 410 U.S. at 298.
10 Brian Stenberg, CNN Declines to Air White House Press Conference Live, Variety (Jan. 21, 2017), available at http://variety.com/2017/tv/news/cnn-white-house-press-conference-sean-spicer-donald-trump-1201966230.