Daniel Dale is a reporter for CNN. His beat is unique, but it shouldn’t be. Every reporter and editor following the president’s reelection campaign should do what Dale does: report Donald Trump’s lies as lies, not as part of some opaque political strategy or a subtheme of another story of interest to the public.
Dale’s work is different categorically from fact-checking. Anyone can do that. Dale, however, makes the lies the story. Moreover, he permits his methodical reporting to culminate in a moral conclusion, one vital to the healthy functioning of a free and open republic. “Trump is a serial liar,” Dale said.
Before I go on, I should say Dale is special. Not just anyone can give frequent, news-making, magisterial, and awe-inspiring performances on live television without notes or visual cues, as Dale did Thursday night after Trump’s acceptance speech. He knocked down one falsehood after another. He informed Anderson Cooper’s viewership of the whole truth, drawing entirely on his prodigious memory.
But reporters need not be virtuosos to understand that their job—their American duty—is to inform the citizenry. What’s more important than telling your fellow citizens that our president can’t be trusted?
There is something more important, actually, something that makes the moral burden on the press even heavier.
While every other word coming out of this president’s mouth is a lie, about 40 percent of the country, the same percentage approving unwaveringly of Trump, despite everything, isn’t just being duped. They desire lies. They fear the responsibility of freedom, taking immense pleasure in surrendering themselves to the authoritarian hivemind. And based on this dense thicket of desire, they decide to believe the president’s lies.
After all, believing lies—however harmful, poisonous, or even treasonous—is more comfortable, and therefore better, than accepting and reckoning with the whole truth. More vexing perhaps, it’s a choice. Believing Trump’s lies is, therefore, rational.
This analysis might sound surprising, but it shouldn’t. White Americans choose to believe the biggest lie of them all when they deny the existence of racism in our society and ourselves. This lie is so omnipresent as to be blindingly invisible—unless you’re not white. In that case, you, my friend, see the truth plainly and don’t need me to explain it. (You also don’t need me to say that you don’t need me to explain it, but I trust you appreciate the gesture.)
Every white person understands how our society treats Black people. That’s why few white people would opt for walking a mile in a Black person’s shoes (even if he’s rich, as Chris Rock once said, “That’s how good it is to be white!”) While some white people fight racism, most don’t. Why should we? The system works for us, even if we struggle as individuals. Inaction by white people is tacit action, a choice made in keeping with our self-interests. The lie is rational.
Racism does not need proving as a precondition to reporting, because it’s always already a precondition to our society. Journalists are, therefore, justified in thinking anyone denying racism is acting rationally in their self-interest. And journalists are therefore justified in thinking anyone denying racism is acting in bad faith. As University of Connecticut philosopher Lewis Gordon put it, such people are trying to “escape personal anguish” by deciding to ignore evidence counter to “cherished beliefs.”
If you’re escaping something, the reporter’s job is easy. Why is the truth painful? What is there to lose? Are you prepared to be held responsible for your choices? Daniel Dale’s beat is holding Trump accountable for his lies. But the press corps is justified in doing the same for 40 percent of Americans choosing to believe them.
I’ve said the reason a handful of Black people vouched for Trump at the Republican National Convention wasn’t to expand his appeal among Black voters. It was to make white voters, especially Trump’s supporters, feel good about supporting a racist and feel all right about systemic racism’s sadist outcomes. Indeed, you could say the entire point of this week’s convention was advancing, deepening, and expanding the biggest lie of them all: that white Americans aren’t racists, that white Americans deserve their power and privilege, and that Black Americans deserve their fate.
When journalists cover lies as part of another story, instead of as the story itself, they not only spread the lie but, in the case of systemic racism, fuel America’s self-destruction. The point of a free press is to enable a free people.
Instead, it’s enabling our captivity.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative. This article was first published at The Editorial Board.