Bruce Bartlett on Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks

In Part 2 of our conversation, the Trump foe and former Reagan adviser discusses his new book, The Truth Matters.

Bruce Bartlett on Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks

Reporters surround Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) after a brief press conference before an Armed Services Conference Committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act in Washington, DC, on Oct. 25, 2017. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Over the years Bruce Bartlett has experienced how the media covers politics and government from both sides – first as a Capitol Hill staffer and adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and now as an author, columnist and much sought-after commentator.

Never one to pull punches, he has been a pointed critic of the Trump administration and what has happened to the Republican Party he once called home. Now a self-described independent, he wrote at the website in June, “The simplest way to explain my intellectual and political evolution is that I had previously seen the Republican glass as half-full, now I saw it as half-empty. (These days, it is completely empty.)”

Bartlett’s latest book, The Truth Matters, is a concise and essential primer filled with information on how best to use and understand the media. It offers techniques and resources that will help anyone who ever wanted to dig deeper into a story or make an educated decision about its accuracy and possible bias.

This is the second part of our conversation, focusing on Bartlett’s new book. (Yesterday, in Part 1, we concentrated on his expertise in economics and tax policy for a frank evaluation of the GOP and Donald Trump’s proposed tax cuts.)



Michael Winship: What compelled you to write The Truth Matters at this particular point in time?

Bruce Bartlett: After the election, I was rather dismayed by the results and I thought about why it was that so many of my fellow Americans voted for the most incompetent person who’s ever run for president, let alone been elected president. And I believed then and believe still today that the media had a great deal to do with this.

Clearly, we have a broken media in a lot of different ways. It’s a rare week that goes by that we don’t hear about layoffs at major newspapers and things of this sort. And clearly, the economic problems of the mainstream media are very much at the root of their failure to properly do their job during the last campaign.

One of the areas that I focus on is the problem of politicians who don’t need the media to get their message out. Trump is the most famous example. With his 30-some-million people on Twitter to whom he can talk directly, he doesn’t have to give interviews to newspapers and television stations to reach his voters. He can just reach them directly, and this puts the media in very much of a weakened position that forces them to run stories that they would otherwise prefer not to run and to run them with a spin that Trump and his supporters have chosen. And so as a result, the American people are not really getting the truth about many things that are going on.

MW: The subtitle to The Truth Matters is A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks, which is a very ambitious goal. What kinds of things can citizens do to stop fake news, or at least to stop taking fake news seriously?

BB: Well, what I felt that people needed is a little bit more understanding about the nature of the media and journalistic techniques. I mean, think about living in a country like Cuba before Castro, OK? You could buy cars imported from the United States, you could import parts, you could just drive around in your car without having to know a great deal about how cars work. But after the embargo, you couldn’t get parts so it was very hard to find people who knew how to fix these old cars as they got older. You had to learn how to be a mechanic yourself. You had to learn how to actually manufacture parts yourself if you wanted to keep your car going.

I think that analogy is somewhat akin to what we’re dealing with in the media. People used to be able to just turn on the evening news. There were just three newscasts: ABC, CBS, NBC, 30 minutes a day. You could subscribe to any major city newspaper and get a good description of the news and you knew what you needed to know to be a proper citizen. Today that’s simply not true.

Clearly, many people now live in a closed loop where they hear only information that has been vetted by people with a political agenda who keep certain news away from you or present it with a certain spin. In the past, I’ve referred to this as self-brainwashing, and obviously it applies primarily to people on the right, but I suppose it’s also perhaps true that some people on the left live in universes where they only get progressive news and they never hear other news that might be less congenial to their point of view.

And so people who do at least care about getting the news need to know a little bit more about where to find it and I tried to give them a guide.

MW: I think one of the great things about the book is that you offer practical suggestions and point readers toward specific sources and websites that you think are useful.

BB: I’m not sure if I did it as well as I could have. But I think there are certain things in there that will surprise people. For example, I doubt that very many people realize that most local libraries have news sources available on their webpages that maybe give them access to publications that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

I mean, a subscription to The New York Times costs $15 a month. I think The Wall Street Journal is $400 a year. This is beyond the means of a great many people, but in most cases you can access these publications through the library and all you need in most cases is a library card, which will have code numbers on it identifying you. You can check out books if you want to, but you can also gain access to the library’s website and through that, gain access for free to The New York Times and other publications that would give you a better sense of the truth.

MW: I was very happy to see you reminding people that libraries are not extinct, that they still have these important functions.

BB: I use mine all the time. One of the things that I discuss in the book is how to gain access to academic-quality publications that have been peer reviewed and are written by experts in the field. And this is another thing that you can get on library websites.

Also, people don’t know that if you’re a graduate of a university, in many cases, you can gain access to at least some of the university’s proprietary publications through the university’s website. I’m a Georgetown graduate, which gives me access to a number of very useful publications that would be prohibitively expensive for me. For example, the publication Congressional Quarterly, which has long been an essential source for knowing what is happening on Capitol Hill — I can access that for free through the Georgetown University website by virtue of being an alumnus.

Some of these things are simply useful to know, to help do research and not just rely on the first 10 items that show up on a Google search.

MW: I was fascinated by the fact that the template for your book is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Even the size and length of the book are reminiscent of Strunk and White.

BB: The Elements of Style is a classic. All writers are familiar with this book — very short, one that could be read in an hour or so. I reread it every year just to remind myself of grammatical rules and conventions that I’d been taught in school but had forgotten or needed to be reemphasized.

That’s what I thought some of this book would be, a reminder to people of things that are rather commonsensical. For example, learning to trust primary sources, or knowing the difference between a primary source and a secondary source. I mean, this is just basic analysis and research. Your primary sources are much more trustworthy than secondary sources.

Or just think about Wikipedia. Many people abuse Wikipedia, and I talk a little bit about that. One of the things that I always tell people is that it’s a great place to start your research but you never, ever want to end your research there. Although I’ve never, that I know of, been misled by information I got on Wikipedia, nevertheless, I would still double check everything. But if you’re starting to research a subject that you know absolutely nothing about, it’s a great place to start, because sometimes all you need is the name of one person or one book or one article that is a good summary of the subject you’re interested in and then you have search terms that you can plug into Google or Google Scholar or Google News.

I hate to overemphasize Google, but I’m afraid that’s the search engine that I’m most familiar with. But I think people too often are lackadaisical about these things and that leads them astray.

MW: You’ve had so much interaction with journalists over the years. How has that influenced your thinking about the media and the contents of this book?

BB: Once upon a time, it would be very rare for people to have any direct contact with a reporter at all. But I think in the internet era, it’s much more common. Almost all major journalists have Twitter feeds, and if you read one of their articles, they’ll very often attach their email address. So they’re much more open and available to contact if you have some story you want to tell or you object to something that they wrote. I think there are many more people now who have contact with the media than used to be the case, and as a consequence, I think sometimes they are thrown off by certain journalistic techniques and conventions.

Let me give you a good example. There are certain terms like “on the record” and “off the record,” “on background” or “deep background” or “not for attribution.” Terms like this are somewhat technical but are not necessarily entirely understood or spelled out. And in fact, it’s been my experience over the years, perhaps yours as well, that not every reporter interprets these terms in exactly the same way.

We can see that even people at the very top of the news chain make mistakes by not understanding these things. For example, as you remember, Anthony Scaramucci was appointed to be the White House communications director. This is normally a job that goes to somebody at the very pinnacle of the journalism, or at least the public relations field, whom you would expect to have had very long and deep experience dealing with the media.

But one of the first things he did after getting this job was to give an on-the-record interview in which he said a great many things that were then quoted and he was named as the source for these quotes. He was shocked that this material appeared in print and he was fired from his job.

I know Mr. Scaramucci very slightly and I sent him a copy of my book, signed, “To Anthony Scaramucci, who would still be White House communications director if he had read Chapter 4 of my book.”

MW [laughs:] What stories do you think we’re missing? What are the stories that right now, in this time and place, the media is overlooking or underreporting?

BB: There’s a long, long list. It’s not so much that they’re ignoring stories as they’re not emphasizing the right stories. They’re emphasizing garbage. A lot of people live in a loop in which there are certain important stories that they don’t see or hear at all.

And so I think in terms of the economy, the fact that we’re still suffering from a lack of aggregate demand is something that extremely few people know. The problems associated with global warming, climate change, are being ignored. I don’t know how many hurricanes have to hit before people realize that maybe there’s some kind of connection here, maybe we need to be doing something to protect ourselves by building seawalls and other protections against rising waters.

I think the massacre that takes place every day due to guns is another. Guns have become like car accidents, you know? I mean, it’s one of the leading causes of death. Those stories are not reported because they’re ubiquitous. They happen all the time. People just accept it, and unfortunately, they seem to have accepted the fact that many people are just going to be slaughtered because we allow crazy people to get guns. And the NRA’s power prevents any rational fixing of this problem. I could go on and on.

MW: You write in the book that fact-checking shouldn’t be considered a separate journalistic function but rather the core function of all journalism.

BB: That’s right. One of the things I talk about in the book is that, because politicians and other powerful people, corporations, now have so much more power than the media, they can ignore the media, or go around them, or go to their competitors with information. The media are forced to sort of go hat in hand to their sources and basically promise them, not in so many words of course, that, “Look, whatever you tell me, I’ll just repeat verbatim.” And so they’ve sort of become stenographers rather than reporters.

Rather than subject their comments to scrutiny and have the reporter say, well, here’s what this guy told me and it’s clearly a lie, or it’s completely nonsensical, it’s contradicted by the facts, what reporters will then do is go to the campaign of whoever’s running against this politician and ask them for a comment and publish that. But the reporter himself or herself is not exercising their own judgment on the subject. It’s become what people call “he said, she said” journalism.

Fact-checking really ought to be the core journalistic function, and every single story by every single reporter, no matter what the subject, should involve fact-checking and not just taking someone’s word for something, especially if they have a clear and obvious ax to grind.

Obviously, that’s not what journalists should be doing. They need to be subjecting statements to scrutiny and determine whether they’re truthful or not. So in order for the media to fulfill their function, they have completely separate organization thats they call fact-checking, and these fact-checkers will do due diligence and say, “OK, this statement is a lie,” or “This statement is clearly untrue.”

That’s fine, except that I’ve never seen a fact-checking story on page 1. Fact checking is kind of a little ghetto in the media. You very seldom ever see one of these fact-checkers interviewed on television. So it’s kind of a backwater that allows them to feel, “Well, we did do our job. We did the fact-checking.” This seems to me kind of backwards; fact-checking really ought to be the core journalistic function, and every single story by every single reporter, no matter what the subject, should involve fact-checking and not just taking someone’s word for something, especially if they have a clear and obvious ax to grind.

MW: You place a lot of store in critical thinking and skepticism. How does that apply to citizens interpreting the news that they read and hear?

BB: Well, that’s a very difficult problem and I certainly don’t pretend that I have the answer. But I do talk a bit about being skeptical of stories that are too good to be true, stories that too conveniently fit your point of view, whether it’s your religious point of view or your political point of view or whatever. And to try to get people to slow down a little bit and don’t just immediately hit the Facebook button or the Twitter button or cut and paste it into an email so that your friends can see these things.

Try to slow down, double check these stories, because it’s very easy to do so. You go to Google News or some other site such as that, and if you don’t see this story prominently mentioned, maybe it’s something that’s made up. And I think, you know, experienced people can just look at a URL, you know, the address for anything on the web, and see if this looks a little bit funny; this isn’t The New York Times website, it’s the New dot York dot Times or some variation of a legitimate news site that some people have set up to fool people.

Perhaps they simply did it for fun; maybe they didn’t have a nefarious purpose. But unfortunately, we know that the Russian government was very active in setting up fake websites that pretended to give honest news but were in fact just propaganda arms of the Russian government, and a lot of this stuff created negative — or I should say fake news — that did get widely distributed throughout the campaign.

MW: You write in the book that the same tools that create fake news can help fight it. How?

BB: As I said, you can double-check things much more easily than you used to by just using a search engine. If your source is absolutely the only one on Earth that seems to have this story, there’s reason to be skeptical. But it’s possible that they were the first to break it and you’ll find that out pretty quickly.

Another thing is I think a lot of people honestly don’t seem to know what links are. I’ll write an article and somebody will make a nasty comment saying, you know, “Where’s your documentation for this statement?” and I’ll reply, “Well, if you’d simply clicked on the link, it would’ve taken you to the source of documentation.” So people seem not to realize you can click the little blue underlinings and they’ll take you to a website or a document or someplace that will provide documentation or other information.

MW: Summing up, what worries you the most about what’s happening to media in America today, and what gives you hope?

BB: One thing that reporters have mentioned to me is that when newspapers and other media sources first came under economic pressure and needed to respond by laying off people, they had this unfortunate tendency to lay off their most senior reporters first because they were the most highly paid. Many of these people were approaching retirement anyway, and were easy to induce with a relatively small payout to simply retire early.

This saved a lot of money on the budgets of these newspapers. But what they lost was the institutional memory, the experience on the job that many of these people had acquired over careers that might’ve spanned 40, even 50 years. And in the journalism field, as in many other fields, the really essential education you get isn’t at the university; it’s on the job. So young people coming into the journalism business would learn techniques from more seasoned reporters and learn especially how to tell when somebody’s lying. I mean, who’s ever taught a course in how to tell when somebody’s lying? Maybe they teach it to police officers, I don’t know, but it would be a course that I would happily take.

A reporter who’s been around for a few decades probably has a very well-developed bullshit detector and could help a young reporter not be taken in and to tell when somebody is simply lying to them. And so this mentoring kind of system within the newsrooms was destroyed because all the old timers left, and now a lot of reporters that I deal with, that you probably deal with as well, are very smart and probably much better educated than an older generation of reporters, but they’re inexperienced. They’re simply too young to have had enough experience in life to be able to, well, detect bullshit. And so they are taken in by smart people and, you know, the people they’re trying to get information out — this is especially true in the corporate area — they’re dealing with PR executives who are paid extraordinarily highly and maybe retired journalists themselves, and so they know the techniques and are very easily able to mislead and send a young inexperienced reporter down a false path. And I think that’s one of the biggest problems of the media today.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have a great deal of hope. I just hope that somebody will somehow figure out a way to make money out of doing proper news. Unfortunately, it may require some kind of subsidy. Media are rightly worried about any control that might come from some sort of subsidy, but in fact, the government has traditionally subsidized the media in important ways. For example, the bandwidth, the airways that are used by radio and television, were given to them for nothing. All they had to do was to agree to do some modest amount of public affairs programming in return, and we now know that this bandwidth is worth billions upon billions of dollars. It originally belonged to the taxpayer, to the American people, and was given to private businesses by the government, as I said, for nothing.

Another way the government subsidized newspapers is by giving them very, very low mailing rates so that people could subscribe to out of town newspapers that might be better than those that they locally had available. There are also requirements that public notices be published in newspapers and these were indirect forms of subsidies.

I think something else needs to be done to help responsible media. I think maybe something could be done through foundations. It’s very common for a foundation to set up a professorship at a university. I don’t see why we couldn’t have reporting fellows at major newspapers, and in fact, this exists. Up in Boston, some of the local museums and other civic groups were concerned that none of the local newspapers had an art critic and they thought this was something that was desirable. They were willing to pay the Boston Globe to go out and find an art critic and hire them. Everything published was subject to the same internal editing that every other reporter was subjected to, but the cost of having a full-time reporter was underwritten by a foundation.

I think something of this sort might be an answer to the economic problems of being able to hire experienced professional reporters to cover certain areas that are now being ignored completely.

MW: Bruce Bartlett, thank you.

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.