How media handled Trump's baseless claim that 'millions' voted illegally

How might journalists insist on honesty while navigating the ongoing transition from an unprecedented campaign into an unprecedented administration?

Susan Walsh/AP
Zheng Gao of Shanghi, China, photographs the front pages of newspapers on display outside the Newseum in Washington on Nov. 9, the day after Donald Trump won the US presidential election.

News outlets promptly fact-checked US President-elect Donald Trump on Sunday after he claimed, without any supporting evidence, that he had actually "won" the popular vote "if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally" for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

In their online headlines, The New York Times publicized Mr. Trump's lack of evidence, National Public Radio reported on his "unfounded claim," The Washington Post called the statement a "conspiracy theory," and Politico said Trump's words conveyed "baseless assertions of voter fraud."

The conspicuous manner in which these and other prominent publications informed the American public that their incoming commander-in-chief had once again dealt fast and loose with the truth foreshadows the way journalists might insist on honesty while navigating the ongoing transition from Trump's unprecedented campaign into his unprecedented administration. And charting that course could entail significant changes to the way the news is made.

"We really have to figure out how to tell the truth and not just report the facts. Which is a pretty good sentence but not a great prescription," Masha Gessen, a reporter who has spent years covering Russian President Vladimir Putin's rule, told ProPublica last week in an interview about what to expect while Trump is in the White House.

"I think that I would create new beats. The language beat, language watch," Ms. Gessen said. "Understand that normal is going to drift and shift and all sorts of things are about to happen and part of our job is to notice and document how it's happening. We may not be able to influence the course of events, but our job is to at least be able to tell the story."

Throughout his campaign and in the weeks since his election, Trump has nursed an adversarial relationship with the press, complaining about critical coverage, alleging a widespread bias against him, and breaking presidential protocol by abandoning his press pool. Even compared to contentious presidencies of the past, Trump's treatment of the press is extreme, as The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier and Harry Bruinius wrote last week.

Despite securing his bid for the presidency, Trump continues to blast opponents with claims that are repeatedly challenged by fact-checkers, and often uses the word "failing" to describe any media outlet he disagrees with.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent, challenged media professionals on Tuesday to unite behind their shared values in the face of Trump's bullying rhetoric.

"Don't stand for being called or labeled 'lying' or 'crooked' or 'failing,' " she said, after accepting the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York for her work in furtherance of international press freedom. "We have to stand up together because divided we fall."

A commitment to truthfulness, not neutrality, is the only path forward, Ms. Amanpour added, bemoaning the fact that the political climate in 2016 justified the selection of "post-truth" as Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.

Oxford defines "post-truth" as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief," as the Monitor's Weston Williams wrote earlier this month, explaining why Trump's win was part of a global trend:

But the term "post-truth" may ultimately point to a fundamental shift in how objective truth is interpreted in the 21st century. With the collective knowledge of human civilization at our fingertips through the internet, information is no longer the purview of an intellectual elite, as it has been throughout most of history. With this democratization of information, however, comes the problem of an oversaturation of information by anyone with an opinion on the facts to the point where it becomes harder to determine what is true and what is merely the product of someone's political agenda.... 

This post-truth reality enabled Trump to simultaneously critique his opponent, Mrs. Clinton, for her participation in a recount effort backed by the Green Party, while also alleging that he had been the victim of widespread voter fraud. And it enabled him to claim that Clinton's lead in the popular vote – which has surpassed 2 million and is expected to grow to more than 2.5 million as votes in more populous states, including California, are tallied – was illegitimate, while his Electoral College win remains unquestionable.

These examples could be added to the reasons why Chris Cillizza, writing Sunday for the Washington Post's The Fix, described Trump as "the single biggest coverage challenge political journalism has ever faced" and labeled last week the "Worst Week in Washington" for the mainstream media.

"He simply doesn't play by the same rules as every other person elected to White House in the modern era," Mr. Cillizza wrote.

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