Democ­racy de­pends on the facts

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY TED KOPPEL Ted Koppel is au­thor of “Lights Out” and a se­nior con­trib­u­tor to “CBS Sun­day Morn­ing.”

Once upon a time, long, long ago, dur­ing his sec­ond cam­paign for the pres­i­dency of the United States, Richard M. Nixon made spo­radic ap­pear­ances be­fore live au­di­ences, dur­ing which he would take ques­tions from se­lected cit­i­zen pan­els. Sev­eral of us cov­er­ing that 1968 cam­paign were con­vinced that the pan­els had been stacked in Nixon’s fa­vor. Much as we poked and prod­ded into their makeup, how­ever, we never found any­one par­tic­u­larly par­ti­san. The panelists were just or­di­nary peo­ple with mixed po­lit­i­cal pedi­grees. What they were not, which gave the for­mer vice pres­i­dent a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage, was ex­pe­ri­enced in the cross-ex­am­i­na­tion of a sea­soned politi­cian.

The or­ga­nizer of this ar­range­ment, a fel­low by the name of Roger Ailes (yes, that Roger Ailes), pro­vided ad­di­tional in­sur­ance of these events’ suc­cess by a de­cep­tively sim­ple sleight of hand: He stacked not the pan­els, but the au­di­ences, with Nixon sup­port­ers. What­ever the ques­tion, what­ever the an­swer, each au­di­ence re­sponded with un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asm. The im­pres­sion was of a can­di­date knock­ing ques­tions out of the park.

Some years later, but still long be­fore the ad­vent of the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia, the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion in­vited ra­dio talk show hosts from around the coun­try to set up their re­mote broad­casts di­rectly out­side the White House. They were given ac­cess to high-rank­ing of­fi­cials. Some were even granted in­ter­views with the pres­i­dent him­self. All were told that they didn’t need net­work cor­re­spon­dents and an­chors as in­ter­me­di­aries. They were as­sured of their own high qual­i­fi­ca­tions to re­port on the White House. There is no record that any of the lo­cal ra­dio hosts dis­agreed. They were flat­tered and prob­a­bly a lit­tle more com­pli­ant in the in­ter­views granted them than their more jaun­diced, Wash­ing­ton-based coun­ter­parts might have been.

Mem­o­ries of these sim­pler times have come rush­ing back since the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump. First was his post-elec­tion news con­fer­ence, with the un­fa­mil­iar sound of cheer­ing and ap­plause in the back­ground. While mem­bers of his staff are al­ways on hand dur­ing a pres­i­dent’s news con­fer­ence, there is no oc­ca­sion I can re­call when they gave vent to their vo­cal sup­port of the home team. Stack­ing the au­di­ence still works.

Per­haps Ailes has gone into re­tire­ment, but I sense his in­vis­i­ble hand in the plan, floated but as yet not im­ple­mented, to move the White House press room across the street to the Old Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice Build­ing in the in­ter­est, we are told, of greater space. My in­stinct tells me that the mo­ti­va­tion had less to do with ge­og­ra­phy than with flood­ing the zone. To the de­gree that a more com­modi­ous me­dia space would per­mit mul­ti­ply­ing White House re­porters to sev­eral times their cur­rent num­ber, and with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion con­trol­ling ac­cred­i­ta­tion, the rel­e­vance and clout of the main­stream me­dia would be even fur­ther di­min­ished.

But why re­sort to 20th-cen­tury tac­tics and prac­tice when 21st-cen­tury tech­nol­ogy lies so close at hand? At his sec­ond White House brief­ing — re­call that he took no ques­tions dur­ing his first — press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer dis­pensed with the tra­di­tion of call­ing first on the se­nior wire ser­vice re­porter and broad­cast net­work cor­re­spon­dents, choos­ing in­stead to take his maiden ques­tions from the New York Post, the Chris­tian Broad­cast­ing Net­work and Fox News.

More re­cently, Spicer has be­stowed the honor of first ques­tion on Life Zette, a web­site founded by con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor Laura In­gra­ham. The press sec­re­tary has also be­gun tak­ing ques­tions via Skype; and, through the magic of the In­ter­net, the re­straints of a cramped White House press room dis­ap­pear al­to­gether. How Richard Nixon and Lyn­don John­son would have en­vied the tools avail­able to Team Trump.

It sounds dan­ger­ously un­demo­cratic to ar­gue against broad­en­ing the scope of the White House press corps. But we are al­ready knee-deep in an en­vi­ron­ment that per­mits, in­deed en­cour­ages, the vi­ral dis­tri­bu­tion of pure non­sense. It does not help that so many in the me­dia es­tab­lish­ment have al­lowed them­selves to be goaded into an un­in­ter­rupted tor­rent of quiv­er­ing out­rage. Roughly half the coun­try al­ready ques­tions the mo­tives, in­ten­tions and good­will of the other half. We are in­creas­ingly in­clined to con­sume only the prod­uct of those news out­lets that res­onate with our own bi­ases. What­ever is put for­ward by one side is in­stinc­tively re­jected by the other.

The only ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse is an even greater em­pha­sis on pro­fes­sional stan­dards; fac­tual re­port­ing, mul­ti­ple sourc­ing and care­ful edit­ing. Our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment de­pends on noth­ing so much as the wide­spread avail­abil­ity of cred­i­ble, re­li­able re­port­ing of im­por­tant events. Rarely in the na­tion’s his­tory has there been a greater need for ob­jec­tive jour­nal­ism that vot­ers and leg­is­la­tors alike can use to form judg­ments and make de­ci­sions.

The process is rou­tinely un­der­mined, these days, by noth­ing more than the ca­sual at­tach­ment of a “fake news” la­bel, or Kellyanne Con­way’s more re­cent sug­ges­tion that we live in an era of “al­ter­na­tive facts.” There may be tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage to be gained by tear­ing down pub­lic con­fi­dence in crit­i­cal, non­par­ti­san jour­nal­ism, but it is only tem­po­rary. At some point or an­other, every­one needs pro­fes­sional find­ers of facts.

As John Adams noted: “Facts are stub­born things; and what­ever may be our wishes, our in­cli­na­tions, or the dic­tates of our pas­sion, they can­not al­ter the state of facts and ev­i­dence.” That has been a guid­ing prin­ci­ple for most of us who have spent our lives in jour­nal­ism.

There are no al­ter­na­tive facts.

It sounds un­demo­cratic to ar­gue against broad­en­ing the White House press corps. But we are al­ready knee-deep in the vi­ral dis­tri­bu­tion of pure non­sense.

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