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2020
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7

The free press stands against authoritarians’ attacks on truth

“Disunity is what authoritarians and wannabe authoritarians depend on to divide and conquer. When the public is busy throwing stones at one another, there’s less time to stop and take a careful look at the powerful men in glass houses.”

As established democracies like India, Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, and the United States fall deeper into authoritarian politics, pressure will only increase on news organizations who seek to safeguard democracy by providing truth to the public.

Outlets like Rappler under Rodrigo Duterte, Intercept Brasil under Jair Bolsonaro, and Szabad Pecs under Viktor Orbán must navigate a gauntlet of threats and attacks as autocratic leaders seek to control the narrative and suppress facts about what their administrations are doing.

We at The GroundTruth Project reported on a “playbook” that democratically elected but autocratically minded politicians all seem to be using. There are striking similarities in the tactics these leaders are using as they target the media, create scapegoats both foreign and domestic, rewrite history and ultimately, seek to erode the very concept of truth: a common set of facts that make constructive dialogue and debate possible.

The epithet “fake news” has spread like a virus, weaponized by strongmen around the world against all who would dare tell it like it is. Meanwhile, actually disingenuous information sweeps the globe, hardly held in check by amateur and professional fact-checkers despite their valiant efforts.

A 2015 study found that even people who are knowledgeable about a subject are susceptible to false information that is frequently repeated. The researchers called this the “illusory truth effect.” And attacking the messenger seems to work too, sowing doubt in the minds of the public.

As veteran 60 Minutes journalist Lesley Stahl revealed, she sat with President Trump soon after his 2016 election victory and asked him why he attacks the press. She said Trump replied, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

In the United States, the crisis in local news only compounds the challenge. As Margaret Sullivan argued in The Washington Post last month, the “death knell for local newspapers” is “perilously close.”

“One of the worst parts about what has happened is that local news sources are relatively well-trusted,” she wrote. “In an era of deep antipathy toward the media, that’s no small thing. They still are one of the ways that many communities maintain a sense of unity and shared facts.”

But disunity is what authoritarians and wannabe authoritarians depend on to divide and conquer. When the public is busy throwing stones at one another, there’s less time to stop and take a careful look at the powerful men in glass houses.

And when the free press is diminished, there are fewer journalists walk the halls of those houses and report back to the people. When the public distrusts the press, few believe the reporting anyway. When the press is captured by the state, as we see in countries like Russia, Turkey, India, Hungary, people may believe what is presented but it is propaganda concocted by corrupt leaders.

A free and independent press remains one of the world’s best defenses against tyranny. And in 2020, we’re gonna need it.

Kevin Douglas Grant is the co-founder and executive editor of The GroundTruth Project and vice president of Report for America.

As established democracies like India, Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, and the United States fall deeper into authoritarian politics, pressure will only increase on news organizations who seek to safeguard democracy by providing truth to the public.

Outlets like Rappler under Rodrigo Duterte, Intercept Brasil under Jair Bolsonaro, and Szabad Pecs under Viktor Orbán must navigate a gauntlet of threats and attacks as autocratic leaders seek to control the narrative and suppress facts about what their administrations are doing.

We at The GroundTruth Project reported on a “playbook” that democratically elected but autocratically minded politicians all seem to be using. There are striking similarities in the tactics these leaders are using as they target the media, create scapegoats both foreign and domestic, rewrite history and ultimately, seek to erode the very concept of truth: a common set of facts that make constructive dialogue and debate possible.

The epithet “fake news” has spread like a virus, weaponized by strongmen around the world against all who would dare tell it like it is. Meanwhile, actually disingenuous information sweeps the globe, hardly held in check by amateur and professional fact-checkers despite their valiant efforts.

A 2015 study found that even people who are knowledgeable about a subject are susceptible to false information that is frequently repeated. The researchers called this the “illusory truth effect.” And attacking the messenger seems to work too, sowing doubt in the minds of the public.

As veteran 60 Minutes journalist Lesley Stahl revealed, she sat with President Trump soon after his 2016 election victory and asked him why he attacks the press. She said Trump replied, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

In the United States, the crisis in local news only compounds the challenge. As Margaret Sullivan argued in The Washington Post last month, the “death knell for local newspapers” is “perilously close.”

“One of the worst parts about what has happened is that local news sources are relatively well-trusted,” she wrote. “In an era of deep antipathy toward the media, that’s no small thing. They still are one of the ways that many communities maintain a sense of unity and shared facts.”

But disunity is what authoritarians and wannabe authoritarians depend on to divide and conquer. When the public is busy throwing stones at one another, there’s less time to stop and take a careful look at the powerful men in glass houses.

And when the free press is diminished, there are fewer journalists walk the halls of those houses and report back to the people. When the public distrusts the press, few believe the reporting anyway. When the press is captured by the state, as we see in countries like Russia, Turkey, India, Hungary, people may believe what is presented but it is propaganda concocted by corrupt leaders.

A free and independent press remains one of the world’s best defenses against tyranny. And in 2020, we’re gonna need it.

Kevin Douglas Grant is the co-founder and executive editor of The GroundTruth Project and vice president of Report for America.

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