Sunday, September 11, 2016

Truth in an age of unquestioning belief

Posted By on Sun, Sep 11, 2016 at 10:54 AM

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Now we know who the first really big loser in the 2016 presidential campaign is.

Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show.

Lauer served as host for a “Commander-in-Chief Forum” with presidential nominees Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, and Donald Trump, a (for now) Republican.

The reviews of Lauer’s performance have not been kind.

He’s been called a sexist moron, a doormat, a human ashtray and a weasel. And those are the nice ones.

Much of the criticism has focused on the inordinate attention Lauer devoted to Clinton’s emails when she was U.S. secretary of state — let’s linger on questions about how you used your Blackberry and hustle through any discussion of weapons of mass destruction — and the way he failed to challenge one of Trump’s whoppers, his claim that he always opposed the war in Iraq. Lauer’s research for the forum seemed not to have uncovered that there are both video and audio recordings of Trump endorsing the war.

Lauer’s critics complained that he held Clinton to a more challenging standard than he did Trump.

Certainly, that’s the way the Clinton campaign saw it. Within hours of the forum’s broadcast, Clinton was blasting out fundraising appeals with the subject line “Matt Lauer” that claimed Clinton had to run against the media, too.

All by itself, that demonstrates how topsy-turvy things are.

Not all that long ago, it was the Republican Party that held national conventions wrapped in the flag, that were swathed in red, white and blue designs and that featured frequent examples of fist-shaking at the evil mainstream media.

Now, both parties do.

Some of this is just a Matt Lauer problem.

He not only hadn’t done his research before the forum began, but he also hadn’t prepared to deal with Trump, who has learned to manipulate media and journalists with a virtuoso’s skill. Trump owned Lauer, talking over his questions, during the time they shared the stage. If the broadcast had gone on much longer, Lauer likely would have volunteered before they left the air to pick up Trump’s dry cleaning every day.

But most of it is a larger problem for journalists.

Once upon a time, political candidates needed the mainstream media in order to connect with their constituencies. That now is less and less true.

New technologies and emerging media have made it possible for candidates and campaigns to connect with voters without going through traditional news organizations. Political professionals refer to this as being able to reach their audience without having to run things through a filter. By that, they mean they can make claims that aren’t subjected to anything that resembles fact-checking.

This, in turn, conditions audiences — particularly those that are partisan and ideological — to think that any news story that questions, challenges or merely does not conform to their preconceived notions must be unfair.

Not long ago, I received an email signed by a group of outraged Trump supporters. They were upset about a column I had done that discussed Melania Trump’s clumsy plagiarism two-step dance — I wrote my speech myself but I’m going to ask my speechwriter to take the fall for the section lifted from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech — at the Republican National Convention.

They wanted to know why I hadn’t written a column criticizing Vice President Joe Biden’s plagiarism troubles.

When I pointed out that I, along with many other journalists, had written about Biden’s plagiarism when it occurred nearly 30 years ago and that he had been forced to drop out of the presidential race then because of it — probably not the outcome they would like for their candidate — they weren’t mollified.

Their argument was that Trump should be above scrutiny and criticism because he’s a good American.

And others just aren’t.

Journalism in its finest form is a quest for the closest approximation to the truth that human beings can achieve. We journalists are supposed to ask questions, to express skepticism, to challenge authority.

But the premise of both our work and our role is that the truth matters.

In an age in which facts take a back seat to unquestioning belief, journalists are going to have a hard time.

And that hard time is made even more difficult when guys like Matt Lauer just don’t do their jobs.

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John Krull

John Krull

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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