Protecting the truth in the age of Trump

Five lessons from my reporting in the former Eastern Bloc

Nearly a decade ago, I spent a year working as an editor at an international business magazine in Prague. As one of just a few native English speakers on staff, it was my job to teach the writers — who hailed from across central and eastern Europe — how to report in the more American style demanded by our globe-trotting readers. That meant a big focus on facts — how to get them, verify them and responsibly place them in context.

Press pass from my days as a ‘redaktor’ in Prague.

This is standard stuff in American reporting, the kind of education you get in most journalism schools. Yet it wasn’t the overarching focus for some of our central and Eastern European writers who had grown up in the waning days of Communism.

These were people who did truly heroic work after the Velvet Revolution to build the kind of free press that American journalists like myself have had the luxury to sometimes take for granted. They endured censorship and surveillance, and produced essential stories with courage and smarts.

Yet I was struck at times by our conversations around how and what to report. I observed certain journalists processing information in one of two ways. Some would align with a particular political party and attempt to report its leaders’ pronouncements as established truth, no questions asked.

Others were convinced the entire system was corrupt, nothing could be trusted and even the smallest attempts at gathering facts would prove futile. I remember a conversation with a writer who said he wanted to write about a government official he was certain was stealing.

“How do you know he’s stealing?” I asked.

“He lives in a very big house.”

“Yes, but how do you know he lives there because of stealing?”

“How else could he afford it?”

Hmm, I muttered.

Not exactly a smoking gun.

It wasn’t until I began immersing myself in the writing of Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright-turned-democratically-elected-Czech-president, that I began to understand what I was witnessing in Prague: it wasn’t simply a lack of Western-style journalistic training — it was lingering trauma after a decades-long assault on truth.

Havel — as well as George Orwell and Hannah Arendt– opened my eyes to how Communist leaders deployed propaganda to devastating effect, executing a relentless campaign of threats, disinformation and denunciation that undermined a shared reality. The result wasn’t that falsehoods were accepted as facts but rather the creation of a “crust of lies” so thick and pervasive, that people no longer believed anything at all. Over time, even highly-educated and sophisticated citizens grew weary, confused and scared. They retreated into private life.

They became cynical, obedient or some combination of the two — and the wounds were so deep, I could see scars in that Prague newsroom nearly twenty years after Communism.

Vaclav Havel, former Czech president, at a diplomatic meeting in 2009. Photo by me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this dynamic lately as I try to make sense of what’s happening in the United States, where a reality TV star waged a war on reality, confounded the country and won the Presidency.

In Trump’s wake the news now arrives with such fury that it’s hard for anyone, even a professional journalist like me, to keep it straight.

There was Trump’s congratulatory call from Taiwan, which threw the diplomatic community into chaos. Was it a purposeful move? A political blunder? Was it a purposeful move masquerading as a political blunder?

Then there was the story about Russian meddling in the election. Trump said it didn’t happen, even as a united intelligence community insisted that it did. Then he finally did.

Fact is presented as fiction, and fiction creeps into fact. This is true even when we have impossible-to-misinterpret video evidence.

CNN posted footage on You Tube showing President-elect Donald Trump mocking New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski at a South Carolina campaign stop in November 2015. Kovaleski, who suffers from a chronic condition that impairs movement of his arms, had written a story that undermined one of Trump’s dubious claims.

In the video, Trump launches into a routine reminiscent of a playground bully. “The poor guy, you gotta see this guy,” he says, flapping his wrists wildly while making his face go slack.

Yet to this day Trump has categorically denied doing this. He denied it at the time, and later claimed he’d never even met Kovaleski.

He even doubled-down on his lie after actress Meryl Streep critiqued the incident in a Golden Globe speech.

“For the 100th time I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) …” the President-elect tweeted.

Fact-checkers called him out, of course. But if you Google the terms “trump mocks disabled reporter,” one of the very first items is a story from ‘Catholics4trump.com’ under the headline: “The True Story: Donald Trump Did Not Mock a Reporter’s Disability.”

Fox News weighs in with, “Did Trump Really Mock Reporter’s Disability? Videos Could Back Him Up.”

With so much digital dust in the air, it’s little wonder that we might start to question ourselves. Did Trump really mock that reporter? He did, right? Or maybe I’m misremembering or misinterpreting. If all these sources are saying it didn’t happen, maybe I’m the one who got it wrong.

There’s political advantage in all this manipulation, of course. If basic facts are in dispute, criticism is less likely to stick. And if criticism doesn’t stick, then the manipulators have free rein to carry out their agenda.

But the true tragedy is how erosion of trust and truth affects the rest of us. Good people feel forced to pick a truth and burrow deeper into its ideology, ignoring any information that disturbs the comfort of what they’ve built. They go tribal. Or worse, they tune out, convinced that truth is an impossible pursuit.

That is the legacy I saw during my days in the former Eastern bloc, and it’s what I’m starting to see in my country today.

It’s a dangerous development, and the stakes are high.

To avoid this fate, journalists and citizens who care about democracy have big jobs ahead. Our success depends on multiple approaches.

1. We must relentlessly insist on evidence to back up assertions, and vehemently reject lies and propaganda. This means setting aside preconceptions, emphasizing primary sources and placing a premium on information that can be verified and corroborated elsewhere. Admittedly, this is not a strategy to get the news first, but it’s a way to ensure that information is correct, and, in the long-game, that’s what really matters.

2. We must work to restore trust through the tools of community engagement. Cultivating a journalism that’s built on relationships instead of transactions is one of the best ways to combat the massive trust deficit between press and public. Groups like Pro Publica and the Agora Journalism Center are already doing essential work on this front, and their efforts deserve broad support.

3. Reporters and their supporters must fight tirelessly for access to information. In Prague, I recall receiving a press release declaring the finish to a trial that we and the general public had no idea was even going on. This kind of opacity is largely unprecedented in the U.S. We must stand up and fight for the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right-to-know.

4. Reporters must be transparent about their fact-finding process.

One reason the work of the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold had such impact during the campaign was that he held his notebook open for all to see. That helped insulate him from attacks of bias while investigating Trump’s claims about his foundation’s charity work. It also built trust with readers, who felt a sense of personal connection on the reporting quest.

Citizens, for their part, must do the hard work of breaking through their bubbles to seek reliable information through responsible news sources. And — after two decades of getting it for free — they must finally start paying for the journalism that helps shape their world.

But what’s reliable?

NPR’s Steve Inskeep compiled a handy guide here.

Boiled down, it’s all about thinking critically, reading widely and avoiding snap judgments.

5. And, finally, protecting the truth in the age of Trump means taking our time.

One of the most disorienting things about this moment is the hyperdrive-speed of the news cycle. Because content now moves far faster than our comprehension, we must set down our phones every now and then and give our brains time to catch up. Go for walks. Read books.

Keeping our wits about us is key to surviving an age of disinformation. If we succumb to cynicism and obedience and let the power of facts fade away, we’ll discover something older Czechs experienced first-hand: the only thing left will be power itself.

Want to read more? Check out these essential books:

Vaclav Havel, Power of the Powerless

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

George Orwell, Politics and English Language