Journalism dean talks about lies, fake news

By Kristen Inbody, Great Falls Tribune

Is a statement that’s not true a lie? Well, maybe not.

When Larry Abramson, now University of Montana School of Journalism dean, covered President Ronald Reagan, “We called it a misstatement of fact, but we didn’t call it lying.”

“The Washington Post has said they’re going to call a lie a lie. This is kind of new, and it would make me uncomfortable if I was an editor,” he said. “NPR has decided not to use the word ‘lie.’”

A lie is intentional deception and “unless you can read the mind of the person making that statement, you can’t really call it a lie,” he said. “It’s very rare you catch someone in a lie where you know they said the opposite despite knowing better.”

People who think 9/11 was an inside job are misleading themselves, but they don’t think they’re lying, Abramson said in his “Bringing the U to You” lecture Thursday night at Great Falls College Montana State University.

“Once you call it a ‘lie’ you basically alienate most of your audience,” he said. He’d recommend “untruth” or “falsehood” as preferred terms.

Balance and restraint is called for dealing with the Trump administration, more than ever after Thursday’s news conference in which Trump attacked the media.

“We’re not at war with the president. We can take the abuse. People have called me names and insulted me. You’re supposed to get over it,” he said. “Please don’t let that infect your work.”

Reporters shouldn’t hold a grudge against the White House no matter what happened the day before.

“Once we start to rebel against the president’s depiction of us, we’re abrogating our responsibility,” he said, airing a clip of a CNN reporter and Trump fighting at a press conference.

“This is turning the media into the story,” he said. “I really cringe when I see that kind of stuff.”

Being overwhelmed contending with the sheer number of information sources is already a problem for news consumers. He wondered how many people would make it through his hourlong lecture without checking their smartphones.

Citizens find themselves in a kind of “future shock” when it comes to the news – too much change too fast to process.

When it came to the 2016 presidential campaign, the media “blew it,” Abramson said.

“We blew it or maybe the public blew it. Or maybe it was the trolls, the people influencing our minds surreptitiously through these memes,” he said.

“Much of what we knew about the world has been called fake. That’s a word we used to use selectively,” he said. “Now the words ‘fake news’ are used by the president and the people who make fake news. They’re hurling it back at us. I think a lot of the news about fake news is itself fake news.”

News consumers are self-segregating themselves so they only have to take in what they already agree with. Trump supporters significantly favor Fox News. Clinton supporters didn’t have so clear a favorite but tended to tune into CNN or MSNBC more often.

As a reporter, Abramson sought out people as far from the mainstream as he could find, among them conspiracy theorists. Reporters have to get outside their bubbles.

“Good reporters don’t view themselves as being of a certain point of view,” he said. “You’re curious about what others think.”

One thing that keeps news consumers segregated is that most major media organizations are centered on the coasts, and one in five media jobs are in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York. And indeed, that’s where he recommends young journalists seek work.

“I’m in Great Falls, Mont. How many people think the main stream media care about what you think here?” Abramson said to laughs.

Having coastal “parachute journalists” come into heartland communities does matter though, even if their stay is brief.

“It is important to have outsiders come into your community and cast a skeptical eye,” he said.

Some people said a take-away from campaign coverage is that there was a dearth of good coverage, but Abramson said he doesn’t buy it, citing path-breaking coverage of Trumps’ philanthropic shortfalls, tax issues.

“It might have gotten lost in the wash of campaign coverage. We cover campaign events too much,” he said. “A campaign event is an artificial event. We should back off that kind of coverage … but I wouldn’t look to that changing any time soon.”

Another lesson we’re supposed to have learned is an “epidemic of lies is undermining our faith in journalism, of government,” he said.

Abramson covered Reagan, both Bushes and Obama.

“They’ve all lied to me; they’ve all lied to us. Sometimes it’s spin. Sometimes it’s wishful thinking,” he said. “They all gave us the message they thought we wanted to hear.”

Fake news may not be a problem in four years if technology responds the way it did with spam email. And then there’s the people developing their own sense of what’s worthless – and refusing to share online what’s garbage.

“The bright side of fake news is it’s going to keep reporters in donuts. We have a new reason for being – all this fake news that has to be fact checked,” he said. “This is actually kind of a fun enterprise.”

He compared a Breitbart story about Muslims attacking German’s oldest church on New Year’s Eve with the “main stream” story explaining that the “attack” story wasn’t true.

“The challenge is we don’t know that the people who saw this are going to see that,” he said.

The more time spent fact checking, the less investigation time into problems facing the country. Quality journalism requires talking to people about issues of health care and student debt and other issues.

“If we’re just fact checking outrageous statements, there’s going to be less of that,” he said. “We don’t need to deal with every piece of garbage.”

Ultimately, the most important factor in determining what’s true comes down to individuals and developing an educated mind, Abramson said.

“Some news is good for you and you have to eat it whether you like it or not,” he said.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kristen Inbody at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @GFTrib_KInbody