By Robert Reich
This is the last of my 10 essays on the common good, and I want to focus on what each of us can do to discover, spread, and insist upon public truth.
By public truth, I mean facts about what is happening around us that affect how we together understand the world.
In recent years, public truth has been undermined by people who have been willing to do whatever it takes to gain wealth or power.
The most egregious example is Donald Trump, of course.
But even before Trump, the mainstream media occasionally slanted the news out of fear of offending major advertisers or powerful interests. (The New York Times reporter Judith Miller notoriously colluded with the George W. Bush administration in propagating its blatant lie about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.)
Meanwhile, journalists have been under mounting pressure to deliver stories that attract the largest number of viewers or readers rather than inform readers and viewers of important truths.
Corporate public relations professionals, who now vastly outnumber professional journalists, do whatever it takes to get favorable stories for their companies and avoid unfavorable ones.
Finally, because of ever-intensifying competition for funding, universities and nonprofit research institutions sometimes shape their research agendas to satisfy funders — some even suppressing analyses that funders dislike.
All of this paved the way for Trump — his ubiquitous lies, his ongoing attacks on journalists, his assault on scientists and researchers, his onslaught against truth.
Truth is the most basic of common goods. As the late senator and professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.
When we accept lies as facts, or illogic as logic, we lose the shared reality necessary to tackle our common problems. We become powerless.
OUR DEMOCRACY is obviously imperiled when the rich buy off politicians. But we are no less endangered when the rich buy off the institutions our democracy depends on to research, investigate, expose, and mobilize action against what is occurring.
David Koch’s $23 million of donations to public television earned him positions on the boards of two prominent public broadcasting stations. They also helped ensure that a documentary critical of Koch and his brother Charles, called “Citizen Koch,” did not air on public television.
Google’s donations to New America (formerly the New America Foundation), an influential center-left think tank, enabled it to squelch research the organization was undertaking about Google’s market power.
Google has quietly financed hundreds of professors at universities such as Harvard and Berkeley to write research papers that help Google defend itself against legal challenges to its market dominance. Some professors have allowed Google to see the papers before they’re published, enabling Google to offer “suggestions.” The professors’ research papers do not disclose that Google sought them out and don’t reveal Google’s backing.
DISTRUST OF THE MEDIA was on the rise even before Trump. On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, only 18 percent of Americans said they trusted national news media, according to the Pew Research Center.
Contrast this with American opinion almost five decades before. In 1972, in the wake of reporting that revealed truths about Vietnam and Nixon’s Watergate scandal, 72 percent of Americans expressed trust and confidence in the press.
Today, most large media corporations are motivated by shareholder returns, not by the common good. In order to generate high profits and share prices, they have to attract consumers rather than serve citizens.
This has transformed journalists from investigators offering serious news to “content providers” competing for attention.
A Harvard study found that in the 2008 presidential election, the major TV networks devoted a total of 220 minutes to reporting candidates’ positions on issues of public policy. In 2012, the networks allocated 114 minutes to policy. In 2016, they devoted 32 minutes.
Hillary Clinton’s policy ideas and proposals received almost no attention, while her “emails” commanded 100 minutes of airtime.
MEANWHILE, IN 2016, Trump’s antics ruled the airwaves. His eagerness to vilify, disparage, denounce, and defame others — not just Clinton, but also President Obama, Mexican Americans, Muslims, new immigrants, China, other nations, Democrats, and the press — turned him into a magnet for readers and viewers.
Regardless of whether they were appalled or thrilled by his diatribes, they were entertained.
As the 2016 presidential race heated up, Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS, said the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” adding, “Who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. . . . I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Moonves knew his admission was a terrible thing to say because he was aware that the common good required a different response, and less coverage of Trump.
As a candidate for president once again, Trump’s media dominance continues — and, again, for much the same reasons: because he uses lies that not only shock but are the diametric opposite of the truth, deploys them shamelessly, and entertains.
BEFORE THE 1980s — before the corporate transformation I have outlined — the news divisions of America’s major broadcast networks made decisions based not on how much profit they generated, but on what an informed public needed to know. Former CBS correspondent Marvin Kalb remembers CBS’s owner and chairman William Paley telling news reporters in the 1960s, “I have Jack Benny to make money.”
Now, the owners and major investors in broadcast television demand that their news divisions make money.
This evolution paved the way not only for Trump’s dominance of the news after becoming president, but also his ongoing assaults on journalists — “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” as he has called them, “the lowest forms of life,” “scum,” “sick,” purveyors of “fake news,” and the “enemy of the people” — even suggesting that their goal was to remove him from office (they “have their own agenda, and it’s not your agenda, and it’s not the country’s agenda”).
The harangues have scored points with Trump’s base and served to discredit anything the press discovers that damages him, but at the expense of a weaker democracy.
When a large enough portion of the public comes to trust Trump’s words more than they do the media’s, Trump can get away with saying — and doing — whatever he wants. When that happens, democracy ends.
TRUMP’S “shoot-the-messenger” war on truth-telling institutions has been an extension of all this.
When Trump couldn’t find evidence to support his claim that “three to five million” fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he created a commission to find such evidence. They never did.
When the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that large numbers of Americans would lose their health insurance coverage as a result of the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s press secretary warned that the Congressional Budget Office could not be trusted to come up with accurate numbers.
Several weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, as Trump tweeted that his administration was doing “a GREAT job” restoring the island, the Federal Emergency Management Agency removed data from its website showing that half of Puerto Ricans still did not have access to drinking water and only 5 percent had electricity.
Then came the pandemic, and Trump’s attempts to suppress facts about COVID, and public confusion and anger about wearing masks and getting vaccinated.
And then, Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and his subsequent lie that government prosecutors have targeted him to thwart his 2024 reelection campaign.
PRINT AND BROADCAST NEWS OUTLETS must demonstrate to the public that their news stories are produced accurately and intelligently. They need codes of ethics with clearly stated processes for checking facts and correcting errors, and ways to ensure that the public is made aware of such corrections.
They must clearly separate facts and analysis from opinions and advocacy, and inform readers and viewers of any news or news-gathering that is funded by organizations with a stake in what’s reported.
They need ombudsmen to investigate public complaints about their coverage, along with public editors who serve as paid in-house critics.
They must not be wedded to “both sides” reporting that misleads the public into believing false equivalencies.
Network news divisions should be independent of top executives who represent the interests of shareholders.
Finally, readers and users of the media must demand truth.
It should be understood as a responsibility of citizenship to be skeptical (but not cynical) about what we hear and read, find reliable sources of information, apply basic logic and analysis, and know enough about history and the physical world to differentiate fact from fiction.
These steps are necessary to restore the media to its rightful place in our democracy and protect the truth as a common good.
AT ONE TIME, I BELIEVED THAT SOCIAL MEDIA would democratize the news — enabling more people to become truth-tellers, giving more of us access to a greater range of stories and perspectives, and providing a useful alternative to corporate media.
I was wrong. Even as evidence mounts that Russia and China have intensified covert influence campaigns, and even as advances in generative artificial intelligence have opened the door to potential widespread voter manipulation, social media platforms have pulled back on moderating content. This is dangerous and wrong.
But here, too, we are not powerless to receive the truth.
We must demand that the leaders of giant platforms like Facebook, Google, and “X” act as trustees of the common good, and take appropriate steps to guard the truth.
They must choose to be treated as other publications and subject to libel laws, or as regulated public utilities, or to be broken up (with their software and algorithms freely shared with small competitors).
They cannot continue as giant monopolies exempt from liability for false claims and also free from oversight. This puts too much power over determining the truth into too few hands.
I have chosen to make this last essay about truth as a common good because it is so central to our capacity to democratic deliberation over the nature of the common good — and because it is now so directly under attack.
Obviously, there are no easy answers, no quick fixes. But I hope these essays have been helpful to you in thinking through what we owe one another as members of the same society and inhabitants of the same planet — and how we resurrect and build upon that understanding.
These weekly essays are based on chapters from my book THE COMMON GOOD, in which I apply the framework of the book to recent events and to the upcoming election. (Should you wish to read the book, here’s a link.) This article was published at Robert Reich’s Substack