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7 January 2021

The companies that profit from Donald Trump’s war on truth must face facts

The rioting in Washington is partly the fault of media businesses, in the UK as well as in the US, that have monetised Trump’s lies.

By Dominic Ponsford

The storming of the US Capitol was the latest battle in a war that has been waged in the media since Trump first rose to national political prominence by espousing the Obama “birther” conspiracy

It has been a war on objective truth. 

From the attendance level at his inauguration to claims of voter fraud after losing the election, Trump has shown a disregard for the truth throughout his presidency that would have made Goebbels blush.  

Some mainstream media outlets, in the UK as well as in the US, have been complicit, monetising the outrage and hatred that Trump has spread. A number have continued to propagate misinformation after the November election. 

The weekend after the election, the Sunday Express published a column (now deleted) by Patrick Basham which declared the result to have been achieved by “widespread ballot fraud”; Trump himself tweeted in support of Basham’s opinions.

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Only yesterday, the Spectator‘s American website published a column by Noor bin Ladin, who writes: “We have just witnessed one of the greatest conspiracies ever perpetrated against the American people’s independence and their nation’s sovereignty. It involves many players who, aided by a virus, all colluded to hijack the elections.”

Press Gazette: “Furious men encircled us” – inside the storming of the Capitol Part of New Statesman Media Group

These are far from the only instances of news organisations from the UK helping to spread what the former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway described as “alternative facts”. To paraphrase Joe Biden’s message to the Capitol rioters: this has to stop now.  

The mainstream media must return to evidence-based journalism and comment based on provable facts. It’s not enough to say your title gives space to a variety of opinions if dangerous untruths are woven into those comments. 

And regulators need to find a way to curb the misinformation epidemic which is still rife on social media. 

When Press Gazette asked a selection of the most senior editors in the UK and the US what their biggest challenge was for 2021, those in the UK said (not surprisingly) it was making news pay. But for their US counterparts, the challenge was more fundamental.

Marty Baron, the executive editor of the Washington Post, told Press Gazette: “The biggest challenge for journalism is that facts aren’t accepted as facts any longer.  

Press Gazette: Leaders of the news media predict a tough 2021 Part of New Statesman Media Group

“Societies can’t agree on a common set of facts. We can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact. That’s a challenge for journalism, which traditionally has been an arbiter of fact, relying on expertise, experience, education and, above all, evidence to assess what’s true and what’s false.” 

Nicholas Carlson, the global editor-in-chief at Insider, puts it even more bluntly: “The biggest challenge for journalism in 2021 is also one for the world: the truth is not dead but it’s been beaten to a pulp by politicians, media personalities, and grifters – all for mere power and profit. 

“These are all knowable facts: Climate change is real. The 2020 US elections were the most secure in history. Systemic racism exists. Covid-19 is killing people. The earth is round. And yet each of those demonstrable truths are somehow considered controversial.”

As both the Trump family and a swarm of conspiracy websites have found, there is huge money to be made in telling people something they want to hear. 

The result is that many millions of people believe the climate crisis is a hoax, that vaccination is a conspiracy and that Donald Trump won the presidential election.  

To quote the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, publishers and platforms now need to “put their big boy pants on” and do the harder, more expensive work of establishing verifiable facts.  

Press Gazette: Pro-Trump conspiracy sites now compete with major news outlets Part of New Statesman Media Group

For Twitter, Facebook and Google, that means more transparency and a willingness to ensure damaging untruths are quickly shut down. As they have finally realised with Trump (whose Facebook and Twitter accounts have been suspended), these platforms are in fact publishers and media companies which must take responsibility for their output in the same way as any other publisher.

For publishers, it means journalism is not just a matter of providing a sounding board for sensational claims, but about verifying statements of fact before transmission, even if that means losing a few clicks.