The front-runner candidate for Alabama Senate, Republican Roy Moore, called The Washington Post “fake news” after the newspaper published a thorough investigation reporting on sexual encounters between Moore and multiple teenage girls, one as young as 14. Moore’s attacks on this highly-reputable newspaper are part of a recent broader pattern of prominent public figures using the label of “fake news” to denounce quality investigative journalism that reveals corruption and abuse of power. Such attacks pose an urgent and systemic danger to our democracy, as they encourage corruption and abuse of power by undermining credible media reporting on such behavior.
As a high-quality, well-respected venue, The Washington Post would not publish such a controversial story without a thorough investigation. The article was based on multiple interviews with over 30 people who knew Moore at the time the sexual encounters happened, between 1977 and 1982. The journalists were careful to paint a balanced story, including some negative facts about the women who accused Moore, such as divorces and bankruptcies.
Perhaps most telling of the high quality of reporting and credibility of the newspaper is the fact that a number of prominent Republican leaders are calling on Moore to withdraw from the race. Immediately after The Post publishes its story, Republican Senator John McCaincalled for Moore to step aside immediately, and Montana Senator Steve Daines withdrew his endorsement, as did Utah Senator Mike Lee. After a fifth woman stepped forward to accuse Moore independently of The Post’s story, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell statedthat Moore “should step aside,” and so did Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
On the other hand, Republicans well-known for making false accusations of mainstream media outlets being “fake news” defended Moore and supported his attack on The Post. For example, former Donald Trump adviser and head of Breitbart Stephen Bannon accused the The Post of being “purely part of the apparatus of the Democratic Party” for conducting its thorough investigation. Prominent Virginia Republican Corey Stewart also refused to criticize Moore and instead attacked the newspaper. A number of Fox News commentators,such as Gregg Jarrett, also attacked The Post.
Unfortunately, these attacks on quality investigative reporting represent part of a broader trend of conservative politicians across the country adopting the tactic of condemning media as “fake news” whenever there are stories unfavorable to them. As an example, Republican Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin tweeted that the reporter Tom Loftus of the largest newspaper in Kentucky, The Courier-Journal, is “a truly sick man” for “sneaking around” Bevin’s manor. Loftus at the time was working on a story about how Bevin faced an ethics complaint over an accusation of bribery for purchasing this manor for about a million dollars below market price from a local investor, Neil Ramsey. Apparently, shortly before getting a million-dollar discount on this manor, Bevin appointed Ramsey to the Kentucky Retirement Board, which oversees $16 billion in investments.
Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie used a similar approach when caught abusing his power. He ordered a number of state-run beaches in New Jersey closed on June 30, yet he used a closed state beach in Island Beach State Park for himself and his family on July 2. Reporters for New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, secretly photographed him and his family using the beach. When asked about whether he was on the beach that day, Christie denied it. When confronted with photographic proof, Christie did not acknowledge and apologizing for his lies and his abuse of power in using a closed public beach for the benefit of himself and his family. He instead attacked The Star-Ledger for its reporting.
Without the attacks on the media, the investigations of Christie and Bevin would have simply revealed the sordid affairs of corruption and abuse of power. Our democracy would have worked correctly with voters appropriately getting the important information from credible sources, the largest newspapers in Kentucky and New Jersey. With these accusations, Bevin and Christie distract attention from the corruption and abuse of power, and instead present themselves as fighters against supposed media bias.
In doing so, Moore, Bevin, Christie and many others are tapping the anti-media bias of the Republican base inflamed by Trump’s attacks on the media. He has expressed pride over his branding of high-quality venues like “CBS, and NBC, and ABC, and CNN” as “fake news.” We are now reaping the whirlwind of politicians caught engaged in immoral, abusive, and corrupt behavior using Trump’s anti-media rhetoric to protect themselves and continue engaging in such activities.
Now, it doesn’t mean that Democrats will not try similar tactics. For example, the prominent film director Harvey Weinstein, a well-known and high-profile fundraiser for and influencerin the Democratic Party, accused The New York Times of publishing fake news when they revealed his sexual harassment. However, neither the Democratic base nor prominent Democrats bought this accusation, and Weinstein was quickly ousted from his leading roles.
By contrast, Bevin’s popularity in the polls was climbing in Kentucky, a conservative state, at the same time that he was making his accusations. Moore has continued to be staunchly supported by the Alabama Republican Party and base, despite the accusations and the withdrawal of support from many mainstream Republicans. Only in New Jersey, a liberal-leaning state, did voters express discontent over Christie’s behavior.
However, all of us – regardless of our party affiliation – will be greatly harmed if politicians are able to get away with corruption, immorality, and abuse of power through labeling of credible media sources as fake news. This tactic is posing an existential and systemic threat to our democracy, and we must do everything possible toprotect quality journalism and overall promote truthful behavior.
P.S. Want to promote truth and fight lies? Take the Pro-Truth Pledge at ProTruthPledge.org, get your friends to take it, and call on your elected representatives to do so.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is the author of the forthcoming The Truth-Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide. One of the lead creators of the Pro-Truth Pledge, he is a professor at Ohio State and President of the nonprofit Intentional Insights. Connect with Dr. Gleb Tsipursky on Twitter, on Facebook, and on LinkedIn, and follow his RSS feed and newsletter.