Is It the Media’s Job to Challenge Lies?

This week Howard Kurtz interviewed Chris Wallace about being chosen as a presidential debate moderator. At one point Kurtz asked him how he’d handle it if/when a candidate made unfounded accusations or said something that wasn’t true. Here is how Wallace responded:

“That’s not my job,” Wallace, who hosts Fox News Sunday, said. “I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.”

I was reminded of that time when Chuck Todd told us what wasn’t his job.

MSNBC host Chuck Todd said Wednesday that when it comes to misinformation about the new federal health care law, don’t expect members of the media to correct the record.

During a segment on “Morning Joe,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speculated that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. Todd said that Republicans “have successfully messaged against it” but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that’s President Barack Obama’s job.

A lot of people found both of those statements to be surprising – if not appalling. The idea that it is not the job of journalists to point out lies and/or misinformation seems to go against the very basics of what we should expect from a free press.

But apparently last night on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, while discussing the fact that Matt Lauer didn’t challenge Donald Trump when he lied about not supporting the Iraq War, Chris Matthews explained the root of this kind of thinking among journalists.

OK…so I’ll share my opinion about that: the idea that calling out a lie constitutes expressing an opinion is some kind of rabbit hole these folks have fallen into. I am frankly flabbergasted at that.

Here’s the caveat: lies come in different shades and hues. For example, did then-SoS Colin Powell believe the intelligence reports he was given about Iraq having WMD’s – or did he lie about all that to the United Nations? I think there is room for debate on that one. But when Donald Trump says he didn’t support the invasion of Iraq at the time it happened, we have clear documented evidence that is a lie. I have no idea how calling that out has anything to do with expressing an opinion.

When facts don’t matter – all you have are narratives. That is the root of “both-sider-ism.” But when one narrative is crafted out of facts and the other one out of lies, there is no opinion involved in calling that out…it simply involves affirming the facts. Sure, it’s going to make the ones peddling a narrative of lies look bad. But allowing a candidate who is lying to look bad does not constitute expressing an opinion.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.