Footnoting the truth in the Trump era

How the New York Times tackled the latest falsehoods

Today the New York Times rolled out the big guns in the battle for truth. There, in Jim Rutenberg’s latest Mediator column, were two digits the likes of which I have never seen in the Grey Lady.

Footnotes, people. Honest-to-God footnotes.

The footnotes were there to annotate a story about the Trump administration’s disregard for the truth: ‘Alternative Facts’ and the Costs of Trump-Branded Reality. By necessity, that story referenced two of the administration’s newly minuted “alternative facts”, a.k.a. lies. The first of these was the claim by Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, that more people had used DC’s Metro system the morning of Trump’s inauguration than had used it the morning of Obama’s 2013 inauguration. The second was the President’s accusation that tensions between Trump and the intelligence community were caused by the meddling media.

Rutenberg’s column ended with two footnotes that clearly established these two claims as untruths:

The focus of Rutenberg’s column was the media’s growing alarm at the Trump administration’s disregard for American political traditions of at-least notional truthfulness from our political leaders, and of respect for the freedom of the press. As Rutenberg asks, “what are the long-term costs to government credibility from tactical ‘wins’ that are achieved through the aggressive use of falsehoods?”

But the power of his argument pales in comparison to the impact of those two little footnotes: footnotes that tangibly convey how quickly our media norms can and must change. Polite or parenthetical clarifications of the facts, often presented in the words of political critics, may have been the traditional means of challenging political spin. When it comes to outright whoppers, however, something more is needed.

Are footnotes that something more? Well, they have a long and proud tradition in both books and academic literature, where they offer context or evidence (usually in the form of a citation), in a form that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the main text. Footnotes are there if you want them, but can be ignored if you don’t.

And that’s a problem when it comes to covering the President. Reading the actual facts of a story shouldn’t be a take-it-or-leave-it scenario. Not only does that make it all too easy for a reader to miss the full context of a story, but it also presents the troubling prospect of a media that out of sheer exhaustion first relegates the facts to a footnote, then to the web edition, and then gives up altogether.

Nonetheless, I applaud Rutenberg — and the Times — for giving footnotes a shot. After all, Trump is charting a course that will violate all political and media precedents, and demand radically new ways of covering America and the Presidency. We’ll need to experiment with different approaches, and some of those experiments will be more successful than others.

As someone who is arguably a member of the media myself (the lion’s share of my work now consists of my freelance writing), I’ve spent a lot of time considering what our role and work should be in this dramatically changed political landscape. Does our value even lie in our ability to ferret out facts, or does it lie in our ability to tell compelling stories? I’m not yet ready to choose between the two, which is why — like Rutenberg — I’ll keep looking for innovative ways to do both.

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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