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Fake news, democracy and the search for truth

For 19 years I worked for a company that was and remains the antithesis of fake news. From its founding in 1851, Reuters has sought to produce accurate, independent and well-sourced journalism. There have been moments when Reuters fell short of this ambition, and its best editors and journalists have always been conscious that humans struggle to abstract themselves completely from their personal, political or religious contexts; however, getting the story right has always been at the heart of the Reuters mission. As a non-journalist myself I found this inspiring.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that I find the debate on “fake news” and “post-truth” politics extremely distressing. Not that I believe that US Presidential candidates must conduct themselves in accordance with The Reuters Handbook of Journalism (or the Marquess of Queensberry Rules for that matter), but Donald J. Trump and his team plumbed new depths of lying in his successful pursuit of the presidency. As the Wall Street Journal reported immediately after the election: “Asked whether he thought his rhetoric had gone too far in the campaign, the president-elect responded: ‘No. I won.’” Perhaps this is the ultimate faux justification for fake news - regardless of what we teach our children, the ends always justify the means.

I think not.

So what can be done if like I you believe that democracy requires an informed electorate? (I reject at the outset one possible answer that has resonated from Plato to Hamilton: just exclude voters, from the poor to women to African Americans who were deemed unqualified to vote.) It seems to me that this leaves two basic choices. First, that each citizen be sufficiently educated, motivated and versed in the issues of the day to make an informed decision. Or, second, that she follow the advice of suitably informed experts or briefing materials curated by them.

We might all prefer that each citizen of voting age devotes the time and energy to independently research and arrive at fact-based conclusions on difficult issues such as global warming, fracking and the economics of global trade, but this may be asking too much. These issues are complex and often require a thorough grounding in science if not epistemology. Moreover, adult study time is limited, attention spans are short and spin-masters abound to cloak issues in a fog of misinformation.

I would be very proud if Reuters stepped into this breach, in this the bicentennial of the birth of Paul Julius Reuter, to apply its well-honored tradition of independence and freedom from bias to contribute to the solution

So what about riding the coattails of experts? There once was a time when voters did place their trust in experts who they believed would do the heavy fact lifting for them. The endorsement of the local paper, even if it was the liberal-leaning New York Times, the BBC, Walter Cronkite, The Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House, The Brookings Institute, the right-leaning Wall Street Journal, the parish priest or rabbi. However, the real poison of fake news, Benghazi conspiracy theories, and Russian disinformation is that it eats away at the credibility of institutions and the very idea of meritocracy, declaring an all-leveling “pox on both houses.” We saw this corrosive force at work in the lead-up to the Brexit vote in the UK - a very important societal choice requiring a firm grasp of economics - when the stark warnings of prominent economists, ministers and bankers were dismissed as “fear mongering.”

The road back to truth from post-truth must begin by restoring faith that there is a difference between facts and lies, between argument and bombast. Facts matter. As the great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not his own set of facts.” Donald J. Trump would not have won the popular vote if “millions of illegals” had not voted for Hillary Clinton; he did not witness hundreds of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center; and the concept of global warming was not invented by the Chinese to harm US manufacturing.

One means of attacking fake news and lies is for established media to be more aggressive in fact checking and calling out Trumpian lies. Indeed, many publishers took the unprecedented step of including in their headlines the caveat that: “Trump asserts without evidence that illegal voting cost him the popular vote.” However, this is really weak tea in a polarized country where those who embrace these lies are not reading the publications careful enough to fact check their headlines. Mark Zuckerberg, while clinging disingenuously to the fiction that Facebook is not a media company, has offered a range of helpful suggestions ranging from stronger technical systems to detect false information to tools that make it easier for users to report fake news.

While helpful what we need more is a robust and trusted set of fact-checkers. Perhaps a new, less boring version of C-SPAN delivered over-the-top to everyone’s Facebook feed in which trusted cultural icons appear and debate the news of the day. Not screaming talking heads appearing, Crossfire-like, to boost media ratings, but public school teachers, judges, firefighters, rock stars, athletes - even the occasional think tank scholar discussing the pros and cons of the vital issues facing our country and our world. How such a system would work in practice, who would choose the fact checkers (quis custodiet ipsos custodes?), how to finance it and would there be multiple such systems (perhaps replicating the fake news problem one level up) are all valid concerns. Nonetheless, the threat to our democracies is grave enough to warrant concerted action.

I would be very proud if Reuters stepped into this breach, in this the bicentennial of the birth of Paul Julius Reuter, to apply its well-honored tradition of independence and freedom from bias to contribute to the solution. However, that is not my call today, if it ever was. All I can do like the journalists I so admire is to state fairly the urgent case for action.

Tom Glocer was formerly chief executive of Reuters and the first CEO of the merged company Thomson Reuters. This column was first published on his personal blog. It is reproduced here with his permission. ■