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Feb. 1, 2017, 12:41 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Brian Stelter: We need to talk about whether news as we know it can survive a post-fact era

“Many Americans — I would say, on a positive day, most Americans — do care about sources of information, do care about the truth.”

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, some very smart and accomplished people from the world of media gathered in a packed Sanders Theater to discuss the role of journalism in what some, at least, label a “post-truth” era. Today we’re publishing transcripts of their talks and conversations.

Here, Brian Stelter, the CNN media reporter and host of Reliable Sources, discusses whether we really are in a post-truth era (he says no) and the role of audiences in maintaining the strength of media. You can find transcripts of all the speakers and our other coverage of the event here.

This is it. This is the time that journalists live for. You can feel it watching cable news — you can feel it holding the paper, reading the paper if you still read the paper in print. You can sense that journalists know this is a historic moment — for the country, but for the profession. The best of times and the most unpredictable of times.

Will news as we know it even survive? I think we’ve got to talk about that. Can news as we know it survive if we think it’s a post-fact era? Now, I dismiss that — I don’t think it’s a post-truth, post-fact era. It’s only a post-truth world if we all in this room let it be a post-truth world — if we all collectively, all of us give up on truth.

But will news as we know it survive attempts to delegitimize the profession? “Can news as we know it actually thrive” would be the more optimistic question, and the answer is yes. But I want to just begin by briefly underscoring what the panelists were talking about before. The questions right now do not get any bigger than the ones that were coming up a few minutes ago. The moment does not get more serious than this. On Sunday, January 22, President Trump woke up for the second morning in the White House, and I asked on my CNN program: Will President Trump deny reality on a daily basis? Will he make up fake facts and false statistics? And unfortunately, so far, the answer is yes. Daily falsehoods, daily deflections, in ways that shock and frustrate the hell out of the people covering him. Every president spins, but Trump makes them look like amateurs. I mean, before this election there was a failure of imagination, and that’s really what I wanted to mention about the pessimistic part of my comments: Before the election, there was a failure of imagination. It wasn’t that the polls were completely wrong, it wasn’t that the analysis was completely wrong. The amount of fantastic journalism — prize-winning journalism — was extraordinary. But there was a failure of imagination. And I think we’ve got to in this moment not make that mistake again.

We have to imagine what this new administration can and could do to further delegitimize and disrupt the press. We’re seeing it in the press briefing room on a daily basis. We’re seeing it on Trump’s Twitter feed. We have to imagine these scenarios. If I can be blunt, we have to imagine how bad it could get. And I don’t think a lot of journalists want to or have done that. I don’t think a lot of newsroom leaders have necessarily done that.

Not to say that we should assume the worst. We should not assume anything about this presidency. We should not assume everything he’s doing is good or bad; we should not assume anything. But we have to anticipate worst-case scenarios for the fourth estate, in particular. How this government could use the power of the state to punish truthtelling journalism and tamp down on dissent and shame critics. We’re 11 days. This is the time — a little bit late — this is the time to anticipate and plan for the worst-case scenarios.

And media lawyers are doing that. First Amendment groups are doing that. But I think we’ve got to have more journalists have their eyes wide open about the possibilities.

Of course, the Obama administration withheld information pursued leakers, was not a friend of the press. But again, Trump may make Obama look like an amateur on this front. So let’s not hesitate to talk about the possibilities — talk about the storm clouds of authoritarianism. Let’s not make the mistake of that failure of imagination.

But this is where I turn from being pessimistic to optimistic, thinking about what the audience wants and needs. What they don’t need is for us to make any assumptions. What the audience needs right now is — I’m flooded by e-mails every day. I don’t know how they’re finding my e-mail address. All of these viewers, all of these readers, all of these newsletter subscribers by the hundreds every day, saying we are counting on the news media. We are not buying this attempt to delegitimize the press. We need you. And they’re not talking about me — they’re talking about the big newsrooms of this country that they are depending on for information.

I think those emails and the ratings and the traffic data all indicate an audience hungry, maybe even starving, for journalism right now. And that is why I reject this talk about being post-fact, post-truth. People are watching. People are reading Lydia [Polgreen]’s Huffington Post, Katie [Kingsbury]’s Boston Globe — all of them seen huge surges in traffic. We all know about The New York Times and other outlets gaining subscribers as well. Just today, just this afternoon, while we’re sitting here, in my inbox, The Atlantic saying it set an all-time daily audience record on Sunday and then again on Monday. CNN: a million viewers every hour of the day on Sunday, again on Monday. Normally 500,000, 600,000, 700,000 is a good figure. These numbers are through the roof, online and on TV. And partly that’s because of the protests. Partly that’s because the country is hungry for information right now.

Every day is a better day for access to information. And that, I think more than anything else, is a reason for young journalists to be optimistic — not to give up on this profession, as some of them tell me they’re considering, not to fear entering the profession of journalism, just because the president says he’s at war with it, but actually to seize the opportunity. Every day, there are people who for the first time in their lives have access to a smartphone and access to our work, to our stories, to our videos. I know I made the mistake of taking that for granted sometimes. But in this moment, I’m trying to remind myself and all of you, as Bill Kristol was saying in the very beginning, this access information, this ability to reach increasingly the whole world with our content.

So that brings me to our title here and that brings me to my final point. The future of news is all of the above. The future of news is all of you. News does not start and end any more. There’s not a morning print edition anymore — it’s not a 6:30 p.m. newscast. It’s not even a 24/7 product anymore. It’s always on, and it’s on demand. News is all the time, all over our devices. I kind of think we consume news like sponges, not even knowing sometimes where and when and how we are getting it, how we’re consuming it.

But that’s the future of it. More of all of the above, and if we’re not reckoning with what Snapchat and Facebook are doing to the future of news, then again we’re not having that imagination we have to have at this moment, both in negative and positive ways. We know that as sources go direct, as President Trump tweets and Facebooks his announcements, our job more and more is about vetting and, right now, verifying.

Right now, the conversations about Trump’s tweets, but that’s just an example — that’s just today’s example of sources going direct. Let’s remember that to his supporters, Trump’s tweets are news. They are the same as, or similar to a story written about his tweets. To Elizabeth Warren supporters, the same is true. Her tweets are news. But what are tweets really? They’re just press releases. These are just new forms of press releases — they’re really links. And what I see on social media now are people wielding links like weapons, using news as weapons, fighting, battling with each other, trying to win arguments using these links like they’re swords. What we do in that environment is we have to create our own links. We have to create our own responses, our own versions. Doesn’t mean that we’re at war, but it means providing all the information that we, our newsrooms have — the fact checking and all of that that we sometimes don’t bother actually putting on the Internet and creating a link to. Increasingly, as sources go direct, we have to verify, and it puts the impetus back on us to show why we know something is fake or why we know something is true and how we know it.

But many Americans — I would say, on a positive day, most Americans — do care about sources of information, do care about the truth. They may be skeptical of us and want to know how we arrived at the truth, but do care about knowing what is true.

Wanting to feel and be smart, wanting to be nourished by the news — not wanting to consume it or watch it just to resent or hate the other side, but to actually know a little bit more. It’s not just my inbox that’s stuffed with people that want and need more of that information. Again, I think we see signs of it all around, and that should give us optimism in this difficult moment. I think for the young people in this room, for the students in this room, startups and new news organizations can be built from the ashes of this election. Something new — something that may connect to a voter who no longer trusts a New York Times or a Boston Globe or a local TV station.

It’s a moment for reinvention and creation, but not a moment to be pessimistic. We should think through the possibilities, be prepared for those worst-case scenarios, but recognize there is an abundance of great journalism today. People like me obsess over the mistakes that happen — that’s the other part of my inbox, people complaining about the errors and the accidents and the misinformation. That is true and that is real. But there is an abundance of great journalism every day — not horserace coverage, not clickbait coverage, but real rigorous reporting.

That is what we should celebrate. That’s what we should defend and point out. We are not post-truth. In conclusion, all of us are the future of news. To go back to the title, all of us are the future of news — all of us can seek out great journalism. All of us can support it and help spread it. But let’s recognize: This is the moment journalists live for. This, right now, these weeks, these months, these four, maybe eight years. This is it.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2017, 12:41 p.m.
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