You Can’t Handle The Lie


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I have a confession.

I still don’t have much interest in writing much about the election. I certainly don’t have much interest in rewriting much of what we have already written on these pages.

So if you’re looking for a discussion of why the political right appears to have outperformed at the polls in a turnout-based election, I will instead direct you to what we wrote before the election.

And if you’re looking for a breakdown of the meta-game failures loudly decried in a well-publicized rant by Democratic Virginia Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, I will instead direct you to what we wrote before the election.

If you need a fix on the months of narrative work on mail-in ballot and fraud narratives that laid the groundwork for the unsurprising political excitement of the past couple days, I’d first ask you, “My God, why?” Then I’d direct you to what we already wrote.

And if what you’re really interested in is how we start building something that looks as different as possible from what we saw this week, well, we will have a lot more to say about that. But for the time being, maybe now is the time to dig into what we think is the easiest, best first salvo in our long war against two-party hegemony and the Widening Gyre.

But two things happened last night that are, I think, worthy of mention. First, President Trump made an…um…historic speech. It included a wide range of claims consistent with the fraud narratives that have been built up over the last several months. For the most part, they are the same ones we discussed in the note mentioned above, so there isn’t much else to be said. For what it’s worth, I think occasional fraud is a near certainty in every election, that mail-in ballots at a vastly larger scale than historical levels almost certainly increases that risk by some degree, that electoral fraud at the scale being asserted is hilariously difficult to achieve and would be nearly certain to leave obvious evidence, and that nothing remotely approaching the evidence necessary to make the kinds of declarations made in that speech has yet been produced.

You’re free to think what you want. But I would place last night’s speech somewhere on the spectrum between nuts and completely unhinged.

But something else happened, too.

Within a minute after the president started speaking, MSNBC cut away. Shortly thereafter, so did ABC, CBS and NBC.

Now, I’m not the arbiter of newsworthiness. I happen to think an official speech from the President of the United States during the vote-counting period of a very close election is pretty close to the top of the scale, but that’s just my opinion. It doesn’t matter. The networks themselves told us exactly why they cut away, and it had nothing to do with newsworthiness.

It was because they didn’t trust you to witness a live news event, process it and make up your mind.

“We have to interrupt here, because the president made a number of false statements, including the notion that there has been fraudulent voting,” said Lester Holt, the “NBC Nightly News” anchor. He added, “There has been no evidence of that.”

Lester Holt, as quoted in Major Networks Cut Away From Trump’s Baseless Fraud Claims [New York Times]

This is the core idea behind what we call Fiat News, news which replaces facts with attempts to tell you how to think about those facts. Usually that is a more figurative expression. In this case, it was literal. You had facts (i.e. not what Trump was saying, obviously, but the fact that he was saying those things) explicitly taken away from you, and explicitly replaced with attempts to shape how you, the viewer would process the facts you were no longer being allowed to access.

This Fiat News impulse reached its extreme at USA Today, whose Editor-in-Chief pulled the livestream, deleted any posted versions of the videos and followed it up immediately with a link to a fact-checking article.

These outlets believe that you should only be provided access to information about this event in an approved package that would prevent you from having Wrong Thoughts. It is the truth that President Trump gave an important speech last night. It is the truth that he said the things he did. Like me, you may think those words are completely disconnected from reality, harmful to the country, damaging to important institutions and, in some cases, demonstrably false. You know. Lies.

But know this: any media outlet that thinks you can’t handle hearing a lie doesn’t work for you.


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6 months ago

I think your framing of the events here as Fiat News is entirely legitimate, and certainly in keeping with the longstanding beliefs I have seen written here over the years. I have no argument with the framework you present. I think, though, that it may be incomplete, or at least, it ignores or discounts an important element – there may be a point where the framework that advocates rejecting thse actions by labeling them Fiat News is legitimately challenged by the Paradox of Intolerance. I understand that this is not a clear case (are there ever any?), but there are elements here that IMO raise the issue: Tolerance involves respect for individual autonomy—the idea that people’s minds and lives can be different from our own.  Intolerance means not enduring what you dislike, and seeking to harm it, whether you’re persecuting someone, prohibiting a practice, or punishing a set of beliefs.But how do we determine the limits of what can be done, said, or believed? Should the expression of abhorrent views be legally protected speech? A madman arguing to kill all members of an ethnic group may be considered a repulsive extremist, but he or she could also become a political leader or even a head of state, even a democracy, with the power to enforce those ideas by convincing others, through their speech, to agree with them. How do we respond to this philosophical challenge? If we have a head of state, speaking in his official capacity, denouncing the expression of individual… Read more »

6 months ago
Reply to  EnochRoot

Bravo EnochRoot! I agree.
The fact these independent networks each made realtime editorial decisions to curtail (for once) the cooption of their live broadcasts should be applauded, not derided. Nothing he said was new news. He’s been claiming voter fraud for months (years actually), and he has plenty of access/airtime/communication options open to him. If the past 4+ years have taught us anything, it’s that he’ll continue using them to widen our sociopolitical gyre. So, honestly, of all the things to be writing about today, I don’t know why Rusty choose this The concern about not trusting viewers with unfiltered access strikes me as misplaced in this instance and context.

5 months ago
Reply to  Rusty Guinn

‘Independent broadcasts making realtime editorial decisions ‘ ? All I could think of at the time was the off-camera crews watching all the other network’s broadcasts and trying to judge when was the exact right time to break in so that they would be perceived by the crowd as not too hot …not too cold ….but just right.

Nice write up Rusty. Felt like TV news was the only option there for a few days, but quickly reminded me why I’ve abandoned them.

5 months ago
Reply to  Rech

At a certain point he is screaming “Fire” in a theatre

6 months ago

I usually agree with you Rusty but in this case I feel the opposite … only in an authoritarian regime should the media be forced to deliver the deranged dictator’s message. Independent and privately-owned media outlets should follow their own moral, ethical and journalistic codes and refuse to publish that which they believe is damaging to the republic or clearly false. Why should they willingly be a vector for the dissemination of obvious falsehood? We have Twitter for that.

6 months ago
Reply to  Rusty Guinn

Yes totally fair. I guess I would interpret it not as “they don’t trust us with the lies” but “it would be irresponsible to broadcast the lies”. But I dunno.. I get what you mean too. Thanks – always awesome prose and always thought provoking.

Trevor Curwin
6 months ago

I felt about this cut-away the same way I felt about Sen. Tom Cotton’s NYT op-ed. Letting a proto-fascist air their views in public is far better then letting them skulk about, and wink and smirk at their “fellow travellers” like they get the inside joke (“The Storm is Coming!”). In the end, I think that op-ed ages very poorly for Cotton who has greater ambitions. And the truth is he’s still the man he is, whether someone makes a moral editorial decision or not. If you have a policy of not airing discernible lies, let him have his time and fact-check in real-time or afterwards. If we are so scared that Trump’s bullshit will overwhelm some kind of perceived collective simpleness of America, then you need to ask yourself what you’re trying to salvage. If he stepped to a microphone and said “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome Biden?”, is Joe Biden any less or more safe because the control booth at MSNBC et al clutches its pearls?

6 months ago

I would mostly agree with Rusty here. However, if the media had been consistently calling out DJT and the administration on their lies starting 4+ years ago, then yeah, air it and call it out post presser. But when they have done the fiat song and dance for this long, I think it finally got to a point where an adult had to step into the room. The bad news is they didn’t do it until it became clear he would lose. MSM fail. I didn’t see if PBS/NPR even carried it in the first place, anybody?

Second, the media do not work for us. That is a narrative spun in journalism school. I should know, being a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism – Go Devils! We are the meal on the dinner table providing the eyeballs for the advertisers. Never forget that tender media consumer.

pointy end up flamey end down
Reply to  Kpaz

The BBC World Service (via the local NPR radio station) broadcast clips of the speech late last night, as well as noting the US networks that cut away.

I am almost in complete agreement with Rusty, considering many other inflammatory and/or untrue quotes that have been broadcast for years. “Why start now?” was my gut response to first hearing about the cut away. Also that this could be a missed opportunity to discuss how to disprove untrue statements.

6 months ago
Reply to  Kpaz

I agree with Rusty and I had a similar thought. What would things look like now if the MSM cut away/gave less attention to Trump when he became outlandish and unhinged during the Republican primary process four years ago?

6 months ago

How this note lands with me depends on how much I’m thinking of these outlets as news, and how much as something else. “Entertainment” isn’t quite the right word, but in that direction.
These outlets are owned by large, cold, corporations, whose interests aren’t very closely aligned with the idea of delivering news. They are very interested in how many people are watching, and they know that their audiences contain a lot of people whose skin would crawl at seeing the Trump speech. If MSNBC is showing it and CNN isn’t, some people are going to flip over to CNN and watch those ads for a while instead.
Do I think the CEO of Comcast texted this MSNBC producer to cut away? No. But I do believe that this producer is in this seat because he’d make that call, optimizing ratings under the color of bravely battling disinformation, speaking truth to power, etc.

Ward Good
6 months ago

My congresswoman, Abigail Spanberger, is by all accounts a decent person and if I happened to ever meet her I expect it would be very cordial, congenial even. Friends of mine who know her like her. We simply disagree about policy but the interesting thing about her rant is that she mentions attack ads that branded her a socialist. I don’t think she is a socialist and I’d be willing to bet that most of the folks in her district do not think she is a socialist, evil attack ads notwithstanding. Speaking of evil attack ads, the Spanberger campaign told us all repeatedly that her opponent was the only evil republican legislator to vote against funding for autistic children. That heartless ner-do-well, in the back pocket of big business. That this callous, unfeeling, fellow is himself the father of not one but two autistic children was, of course, not part of the public service announcement …ugh, I mean attack ad. Alas, this kind of hyperbolic ad hominem nonsense has been a feature of American political discourse since Jefferson, Hamilton etc. and I believe that thoughtful people have discounted it for equally as long. So when the President makes a speech full of unhinged hyperbolic nonsense, I do not believe that anyone with two wits to rub together should find that surprising, nor is it kowtowing to the Dictatorship for these magnanimous public servants like Lester Holt to air his silly rant and allow us to judge for ourselves. On the… Read more »

Ward Good
6 months ago
Reply to  Rusty Guinn

I agree. It is widely believed in Richmond that the police were forced to stand down. Some of that has been reported. I know policemen who refuse to comment but they’ve lost any number of people to “retirement” etc.

Karl Kaeten
6 months ago

My initial thought here is that no person is allowed to yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater. I can discern a lie from the truth, most of the time (I think). But, to use your metaphor, I don’t think a rhinoceros can.

6 months ago

As a “vote against Trump” voter, last night’s speech and cut-away was gratifying. Also felt dirty. But in a world where “This isn’t how capitalism is supposed to work! This isn’t how elections are supposed to work! This isn’t how politics is supposed to work! This isn’t how free speech is supposed to work! This isn’t how the Fed is supposed to work (they’re out of bullets)!”…it was PERFECT. #MercyIsGonnaBeHard

Lawrence Pusateri
6 months ago

Chilling Rusty —-The second chilling thing I have read this morning , the first was AOC’s tweet calling for a list to be kept of Trump supporters that they can be held accountable for their complicity. 😳

Then look at the reply’s 😳

I have it all on screenshots for when twitter takes it down

6 months ago

Welcome to the K shaped world, it’s everywhere. As a thought exercise, is the US so divided that we could split into two countries? The US of D and the US of R. I’m not sure, but I’m more worried about the next presidential election.

6 months ago

I go back and forth on this one, but I appreciate the article, Rusty. My gut reaction is to agree. Ultimately it feels very much the bottom of layers of the broad argument of tolerating intolerance right up until intolerance is the new norm. At what point do you not participate in the dissemination of information that would seek to undermine the rules that protects the rights to disseminate anything you like. Its not whether there is a point, but when. Taking your argument to its logical endpoint, should news networks cut from a President calling for violence from his supporters against others? The fact that that is not ‘protected speech’ doesn’t change the real time decision for news networks because its an incredibly grey area. These are ‘penumbra of doubt’ questions, not easy ones. There are no right answers, but decisions need to be made nevertheless. Fact is, news networks ought to have a heavy bias toward covering the elected president like you say, and its about trusting you or me to make up our minds, almost all of the time. But when the message isn’t for us (99%+ of ppl), but rather for those who have already made up the minds, and when that message seeks to destroy the country/incite violence or some other harm, then I think it does need to be cut away from. Was this instance at that point? No, probably not. But it’s not inconceivable in the coming months, sadly. Then, the issue isn’t… Read more »

6 months ago
Reply to  John

I note EnochRoot mentions similar points below (I hadn’t seen that comment before I gave my two cents!)

5 months ago

This comment section is fascinating. We are all dancing around the question of who gets editorial control and gets to set the line(s) in the sand of where the “truth” ends and the “lies” begin.

since this is ET…I’ll share a poem that most closely represents my view.

We dance round in a ring and suppose,

But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

—Robert Frost

Lawrence Pusateri
5 months ago
Reply to  zenzei

Indeed Rafa – In reading John’s section about the dangers of questioning the legitimately of an election without evidence. I had to laugh , as the legitimacy of the 2016 election was questioned for 24/7 for 2 years , and as it turns out —without any evidence.

I don’t trust the media – any media– to be the barometer for what truths I should be allowed to see. The fact that they cut away is one thing, the fact that ALL three major networks cut away at the same time – is very disturbing.

Like FB and TWTR both deciding simultaneously that the NY POST article on Hunter cant be shared…..I mean what a coincidence.

Gregg Sainsbury
5 months ago

I’m late here – circling back through articles. I have been preaching this concept to my kids: Listen to everything Trump and others like him say, and make up your own mind about what they say. Media does not exist to shield us from lies – they exist to make sure free people hear the lies, and process them accordingly.

Tom Hudson
5 months ago

When does “the Media” have the right to lie in its effort to convince us that the President is a blatant liar? Would it have been a more or less effective statement for Media Person to say, “Neither President Trump nor his supporters have presented evidence that there was sufficient election fraud to materially affect the outcome of the election.” For MP to state that there was no election fraud, period, is a lie. Is it as big a lie as was told by the President? Probably not, except that MP has lost credibility, though he/she may have sold more eyeballs to sponsors.

5 months ago

Great article and valid opinion. The competition in the media today is fierce as the likes of ET, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan and hundreds of other very capable and independent minded journalists and commentators break away from the monopolistic main stream media and begin to find their own forums.

For me, I subscribe to centrist independent minded journalist and commentators and I find that I am very well informed and very open to compromise on a broad array of major policy issues. For those glued to MSNBC and Fox News, I cannot say the same for them. Close minded, manipulated, brainwashed are words that come to mind.

Cactus Ed
5 months ago

The difference between ‘reporting’ and ‘journalism’, I suppose. Journalists nudge.

“In psychology and behavioral economics, people have shown that if you just describe options in a certain way, or make some features of a situation salient, you can get people to do and even see what you want. You don’t have to be a Jedi to manipulate people’s attention.”

-Cass Sunstein

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