This puts the shows in a bind: They have based their existence and justified their importance based on their ability to get the "important" people to come say words at them. They are not "news" shows, they are "interview" shows, programs premised on an unending stream of on-camera interviews with people who are either in "news" stories, ostensibly know something about a "news" story, or merely have a conspicuous opinion about a "news" story.
More than any other politician, Trump has directly tied interview access to interviewer compliance. Asking Trump hard questions means no Trump on your show; having no Trump on your show means you are seen, by your competitors and by your viewers, as being less influential or important than the shows that do still interview Trump; asking Trump hard questions therefore harms the questioner far more than it harms Trump. In game theory this is known as the Prisoner's Dilemma, or a variation of it: If all networks do the right thing and point out that Trump is a shameless liar, America would be better off, the networks would be equally well off, and the networks would be most credibly broadcasting “news,” but if any program defects and chooses instead to cater to Trump's whims that program will be rewarded by Trump at the others' expense. He will talk to them, and not the others.
If the programs interviewing Trump considered themselves portals for the news, their motivations would of course be different, but as mere day-to-day interview outlets—wasn't there a reality show or two based on this premise, that the contestants would all regularly file into a confessional room and obligingly tell a camera what they think about the day's events, now that they've transpired, for the sake of the ogling viewers?—there is no dilemma at all. You cater to Trump, and you are rewarded.
The results are Putinesque.
The other complication here is likewise directly related to the modern news model. The people doing those televised interviews are not reporters, but hosts. They are there night after night, to discuss whatever topic the actual news cycle dictates. They do not themselves know the day's news, at least not in any form other than the one-paragraph version, and are selected for an ability to look good and sound good while probing their guests to say hopefully interesting or exciting things. This most frequently manifests in incessant questions about the other contestants in the news: What do you think of so-and-so? What do you think of so-and-so's claim on this program that such-and-such?
All well and good, from the standpoint of entertainment, but if one of their interviewees flagrantly lies to them—which happens often, and by a predicable cluster of unpunishable culprits—their host has barely any knowledge themselves with which to push back. Fact checking, or even basic accuracy, is not built into the model. It's not even a secondary consideration—as it stands, if a politician makes an outrageously false claim in a television interview with a television host, we will read about it later in a print publication, written up not by a host but by a news reporter, using the tools not of television hosting but of journalism. That story may then churn through the news cycle itself, and maybe bubble back up as a new bit of fodder for the interview shows, at which point an interviewer will valiantly ask their subject about the lie, and the subject will repeat the lie, and the interviewer will be able to do approximately nothing about it because they are not a reporter, and do not know the facts, and only heard that their charge was lying because some actual reporter said so.
Trump is able to exploit that feature of our politics, too, expertly—though whether it is intentional tactic or just a feature of his own impenetrable narcissism is open to debate.
Rolling this all back around to the Washington Post's depressed fact checker: We can see the irony here, right?
In a functioning news environment, the notion of a dedicated public fact checker would not exist. The whole premise of needing separate people, departments, or organizations to scan through the newspapers and television shows and tell you which of the claims in the "stories" are in fact pure bunk is depressing in itself. One would think that making sure the news that is printed is true would be the job of, well, everyone. But political interview theater is not news, it is merely theater, and it is not the job of the actors to explain to the audience whether any of what's being performed is true or merely an entertaining invention.
The problem is not, by itself, Donald Trump. Donald Trump just heaved himself into the gaping logical flaw of a "news" model that rewards celebrity over accuracy and built himself a nest there. The problem is that Handsome is not a substitute for Knowledgable, and Access is not a substitute for Honesty, and that there is absolutely no reward for doing the right thing by the public, because doing the wrong thing will net you better ratings.
It's a bigger problem than just "why won't the news media call out Donald Trump's compulsive crookedness." The problem is that they can't. It's not built into the system.
And that's not new. You may recall that we recently went to war because of it.
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