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Letter from the editor: November 2017

What is a fact? And who gets to decide what constitutes a fact? Is truth value-free?

We all need to start thinking about these questions.

Last month, there were many instances of the media trying to assert their credibility against the backdrop of Trump’s presidency. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal released an updated version of their social-media policies to the public; both newspapers banned their reporters from posting “partisan opinions” on social media platforms in an attempt to convince the public that their reporters aren’t biased. (By the way, this is a really backwards way of trying to gain credibility because no human is without bias—and it’s a farce to pretend otherwise. But I’ll leave that topic for another day.)

More recently, CNN launched its “Facts First” campaign. If you’ve been on Twitter lately, you’ve likely seen the video, or at least the photo of the apple. I’ve written down the video’s transcript for context:

The video begins with an image of an apple on a white screen. A voice says, “This is an apple. Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana. They might scream ‘banana, banana, banana’ over and over and over again. They might put banana in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana, but it’s not. This is an apple.” It ends with the words “Facts First” written on the screen.

I get the point—CNN is trying to show that facts are indisputable truths. The problem is, it’s one thing to assert definitively that an apple is an apple. An apple is an apple is an apple is an apple. It’s always going to be. People are not likely to dispute this. But what about other statements? What about statements like “Trump tells lies” or, as I brought up in my last editorial, “Vaccines never cause autism?” What happens when the truth—the facts—become uncomfortable for some?

Let’s take the statement “Trump lies.” This is a fact that has been proven time and time again—yet it is still often reported in the press as if it is an opinion, and it is statements like this that could apparently be seen as “partisan opinions” if tweeted by a reporter from the NYT or WSJ.

When CNN covers stories about Trump’s lies on their primetime shows, they often cover it as a forced debate. They hire Trump pundits like Jeffrey Lord—people who are paid to defend Trump at all costs— and put them on a political panel against experienced political analysts. What usually unfolds is a mess of an argument and there is rarely a resolution.

This doesn’t achieve truth and it certainly doesn’t put the facts in the spotlight. Instead, this type of entertainment television gives Trump’s misleading information more airtime without outright acknowledging that it is a lie. The thing is, just because a fact makes a portion of the population uncomfortable doesn’t make it less of a fact. Just because a portion of the population screams bias doesn’t mean a statement is biased.

Through their Facts First campaign, CNN is attempting to gain credibility, but they’re missing the mark. It’s one thing to call an apple an apple to prove that you’re going after the facts first—but when it comes to tricky topics like Trump, CNN, at least on primetime television, has trouble calling a spade a spade and stopping the spread of misinformation.

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