A Biden supporter holds up the election map

A supporter of President-elect Joe Biden in Philadelphia displays the electoral college map after the 2020 Presidential Election is called on Nov. 7.

Lou Abbott and Bud Costello’s most famous comedy sketch builds off a play on punctuation. Abbott names a baseball team’s infielders, and Who’s on first. Costello hears the period as a question mark. Confusion ensues. Frustration builds. It’s like they aren’t using the same language, even though they are both speaking English.

The bit is funny.

President Donald J. Trump asserts the election is rigged, months before there even is one. He and his henchmen build off a play on facts and double down on the Big Lie after the votes are in.  Journalists and watchdogs scurry to find proof, and, of course, there is none. Confusion and frustration ensue. Polling shows eight in 10 Trump voters believe former Vice President Joseph Biden did not win legitimately.

The Lie is scary.

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin asserts, rightly, that the press bears blame for repeating back the tweets and posts and press conferences in which this Lie and other lies find traction. She fired the strongest broadside to the partisan networks that air deceivers and disseminators of disinformation in a piece on November 10, a full week after Election Day and three days after the election was called. The headline was unflinching: “The media should remember key lessons from the Trump era.”

Of course. And Rubin wasn’t the first to say so. But it was this sentence — a clear statement of why those lessons are imperative — that held me:

In doing so, they damaged the fabric of democracy, which demands we operate with a common appreciation for truth.

A bold predicate and object, to be sure. It combines with the subtlety of the end of the sentence. “A common appreciation for the truth” suggests the need for a common language — that we agree on the need for truth before we do the messy, inefficient, wonderful work of democracy.

The truth, for most of us in the “reality-based press,” as Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan calls it, is a practical one, born of the best available facts at the time we know them. This truth demands an answer to the question: “How do you know that?”

I like Rubin’s definition of democracy, and of the responsibility it places on us, as journalists and citizens, to uphold it.

Tom Warhover is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, teaching reporting, fact-checking and journalism semantics.

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