(CNN)Since Donald Trump took office, he and his administration have been yelling about fake news and alternative facts. Now that the midterms are over, and the President is nearing the halfway point of his term, we need to accept that the way we cover this administration isn’t working. The primary reason is Trump — he does not act in the way traditional presidents act, particularly when it comes to handling affairs of state with honesty, care and decency.
The problem doesn’t entirely lie with Trump. The social media explosion of new technology over the past decade has ironically given rumors and falsehoods an even bigger head start on the truth. One can only imagine what Mark Twain would make of Twitter and the way the President as well as many other public officials use it.
Some journalists throw their arms up and say there is nothing we can do but wait. Journalism is built on a strong foundation and will outlast Trump and other demagogues who seek to subvert facts and the truth. I think that’s wrong. There are limits to what media organizations can do, but that doesn’t mean they should do nothing to adjust to the new reality.
So, some modest ideas. The first applies to covering live presidential events, which involve mutual trust between journalist and public official. Trump has abused that privilege of his platform. He has repeatedly and blatantly lied about the facts and his own policies. He has spread spurious and demonstrably false charges against his critics and attacked journalists who are doing their jobs.
Trump responds to Michelle Obama’s comments
He has lost the right to be covered live on TV or Twitter. His probation? Tape delay. Do not put anything on live; in fact, don’t put anything on without a fact check. Whether a presidential event is broadcast live at 11 or 11:30 does not impose an enormous burden on the President’s ability to lead the nation or get his message out. It does allow the President’s comments to be broadcast in the context of reality and truth.
Second, add fact-checking to all media platforms. Instead of episodic attempts to hold the President accountable, make fact-checking something viewers and readers can count on and look forward to. Every day, set 10 minutes aside to check what our President has said.
The Washington Post has detailed more than 6,420 false or misleading claims since he took office. But that number lacks meaning if the lies are not exposed in real time and on a regular basis. One reporter, Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star,has an army of Twitter followers who regularly check in to read his rapid debunking of Trump lies. Just think what other news outlets could do if they put their mind to it.
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Third, wrestle Twitter to the ground. No other platform has driven more unverified news and outright nonsense and conspiracies. No other platform has done more to erode traditional media. Those media were never perfect and never reflected the diversity that is America. On the other hand, they generally have shared standards and codes and ethics to separate the wheat from the chaff of the news cycle. They do the best they can to deal in truth, and they correct errors when they get it wrong.
Modern media have to recognize that Twitter, at its worst, it is nothing more than a bulletin board for public officials and their handlers to start and spread rumors. Tweets should be seen only as the second screen of political news coverage — background music to the main event that we call news. They should never be presented as a standalone piece of news, rather as part of the political conversation where both sides have their say. With an emphasis here on both sides.
This isn’t censorship; it’s judgment. It’s already true that the White House does not go into an event with the President unless there are reporters as part of the “pool.” That’s because they don’t want the President to make a statement without being challenged — and rightly so.
The Twitter conversation moves at light speed. But news organizations should take the time to present both sides of any issue with the proper context and explanation that it’s a tweet, nothing more.
Finally, let’s give citizens a way to score. On Amazon we know what millions of consumers think of a product. When you book a flight you immediately see which flights leave on time and which ones are regularly delayed. Give politicians report cards, a grade of how they’re doing. Why can’t we give politicians the most important grade of all — how often they tell the truth and how often they lie to the American people?
If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that the traditional media have lost the ability to shame politicians into telling the truth. And, as in the case of many of our national challenges, the politicians won’t fix it; they’ll just exploit it. It’s up to the media to change, and if they can’t, the public may just stop watching, reading and listening.
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