When major news sources report and promote lies, what is the public to do?

March 18, 2023 3:33 am
Protesters gather in front of Fox News.

Protesters rally against Fox News outside the company’s headquarters at the News Corporation building on March 13, 2019, in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The recent revelation that multiple hosts on Fox News deliberately misled their audience — reporting and promoting the lie that there was rampant voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election when they knew there was none — may not be surprising but is definitely damning.

Every American who cares about the role of the press in our daily lives should be alarmed and outraged.

According to sworn statements in depositions for a lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch admitted he and other executives were aware of the deceptive practices and blatant lies. Yet they allowed them to be continually broadcast.

We are all aware of the divisiveness such misrepresentations and lies have caused, from the threats and financial costs many secretary of state offices and local election officials incurred to the greatest tragedy of all — the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The nation is still dealing with and reeling from the negative effects of those election lies.

There is a school of thought that would like to make a distinction between pure reportage of news events and the interpretation or discussion of those events, which Fox News has alluded to in its defense.

But bottom line: No matter what, shouldn’t all of it be based on facts and truth?

Since this nation was founded, the press has always consisted of three main dimensions: Reporting the facts and events; the interpretations of what those facts and events mean; and thoughts or opinions regarding them.

Saying only reportage should be based on facts and truths — but interpretation, analysis, and opinion/commentary are not — is a false and misleading distinction.

With the advent of cable news and 24/7 coverage, many platforms for reporting, analyzing and discussing the news and events of the day have emerged. One would think that is a good thing. There is more time to gain a complete and better understanding of what can be complex and complicated issues.

But too often, those valuable platforms have been used to distort, create and promote rumors, innuendo and conspiracy theories.

Too often, those valuable platforms have been used to distort, create and promote rumors, innuendo and conspiracy theories.

– Janice Ellis

When public trust in the press is at an all-time low, what is the public to do when some of the news media outlets deliberately and knowingly become a propaganda machine whether for a political person, political party, interest group or downright greed? With the recent revelations about Fox News, it appears that all of the above forces and motives were in play.

What a miscarriage and disregard of the awesome role and responsibility of the press.

What a danger to a healthy democratic republic as the United States.

Perhaps the greatest harm is the growing mistrust of all media. The good is often lumped with the bad. Can you trust your news sources?

How many issues — consuming Congress and state governments, political organizations, parents and other concerned citizens — are being fueled knowingly by distortions and downright lies?

Many come to mind: The false claim that any measure to ban military style AR-15 automatic weapons is an attempt to take away Second Amendment gun rights; that immigrants are bringing drugs and crime into the country; that books should be banned, and high school curricula restricted because they are promoting false Black history.

Not to mention the growing concern about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” as viable issues, both of which are gaining unwarranted and unjustifiable attention and legislative actions.

It must also be asked: Are we becoming a society where truth is becoming an expendable commodity, a fluid medium of exchange?

What are we to think when politicians and other public persons lie, distort and push false narratives and conspiracy theories with reckless abandon? Even worse, we the public not only allow them to get away with it, but we often reward them by allowing them to keep their positions and be continually financially rewarded.

Is it any different when we continue to tune in day after day, night after night, and be gullible and dependable viewers that boost ratings of so-called news programs even if we suspect, maybe even know that they are scarce on facts and truth, but generous on lies and propaganda?

If facts and truths are expendable in our public discourse, and the press cannot be relied upon to hold government, politicians, elected officials, and businesses accountable in all areas that define the quality of life for American citizens, what possibly can be the country’s future?

America is at critical crossroads in many areas. As we try to gain a better understanding of the issues at hand, sadly we must remain mindful that all news sources are not truthful.

There has been a tremendous erosion in the role the press has played in preserving, promoting, and strengthening our democracy. Regaining that role is paramount to the future of America. The Fox News revelation happens to be our most serious wake-up call.

The real question is: Will it be forgotten and ignored once it stops making the headlines?

Freedom of the press carries with it the awesome responsibility of reporting facts and truths about issues and events, including any comment and analysis of those same issues and events.

In order to have confidence in what the media is reporting or discussing whether on radio, TV, in newspapers, or online, the press must restore public trust.

Failure to do so will render its role null and void, in ensuring that our republic — our democratic form of government — survives.

This commentary originally appeared in the Missouri Independent, a States Newsroom affiliate. 

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Janice Ellis
Janice Ellis

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Her commentary has appeared in The Kansas City Star, community newspapers, on radio and now online. She is the author of two award-winning books: "From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search of the American Dream" (2018) and "Shaping Public Opinion: How Real Advocacy Journalism Should be Practiced" (2021). Ellis holds a Ph.D. in communication arts, and two Master of Arts degrees, one in communications arts and a second in political science, all from the University of Wisconsin.