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Democracies need honest, fact-based debate

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
November 2, 2020

After nearly four years of Donald Trump, there is little room left for objective reporting and political discourse backed by facts. If nothing changes, the US risks breaking apart, says Ines Pohl.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden answers a question as US President Donald Trump listens during the second and final presidential debate
Image: Morry Gash/Reuters

The United States has always been a country of contrasts, a polarized nation. There are only two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, that play a real role in politics. Governments don't need compromises to form a governing coalition — either they win a majority, or they've lost the election.

This partisan politics has been reflected in the media for centuries. Even the first regularly published US newspapers in the 18th century took a clear position on the important political decisions of the day. Today, broadcasters, newspapers and other publications — like in many other countries — tend to follow a specific political line, and people typically choose to get their news from the source they feel most closely matches their political views. 

Read more: EU pins hopes on Joe Biden victory

Media no longer seen as credible

After nearly four years of a Donald Trump presidency, two things are now fundamentally different:

  • American media organizations have given up the quest for objective political reporting, and have now transformed into political players.
  • Trump's constant accusations that the media is made up of nothing but "lies" and "fake news" have had an effect.
Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl heads DW's Washington bureauImage: DW/P. Böll

Never before has the credibility of the journalism profession been so low. Both points are certainly related, with social media acting as an amplifier. There are few places left in the US for discussion of contentious political concepts and possible solutions. And this election campaign has shown us the result of that, with more and more people only trusting their own little social media bubbles to provide them with information. This has had disastrous consequences, leaving the door wide open for conspiracy theorists and enemies of democracy.

The media itself, through its extreme one-sidedness, is no longer seen as a credible corrective source. By rewarding the loudest, shrillest and most polarizing headlines, algorithms now firmly control the discourse in both political camps.

Read more: How coronavirus has changed the face of US democracy

Facts and scientific findings have little chance of penetrating these bubbles, which have been overrun by Trump's claims. Over the past few weeks, I've seen this power of persuasion for myself, speaking with average Americans who claim that Hillary Clinton keeps young children locked up in her basement or that COVID-19 is nothing more than an attempt by an ominous group to take control of the world.

US at risk of breaking apart

On the other side of the political spectrum are the oft-complacent, well-off city dwellers who are unwilling to share the worldview of those families who have been dependent on factory jobs for generations, jobs that are becoming fewer and fewer. Or those dependent on coal mining, which has no future.

Read more: From North Korea to Middle East: Donald Trump's diplomacy evaluated

This is scary — and it should be scary. The US right now is vulnerable and could break apart, for many reasons. Partly because of the education system, but also due to demographic developments. The fact that the minority population will continue to grow and end white dominance — at least in purely numerical terms — in about two decades has unsettled many, and exposed the deep-seated racism that still exists in many parts of this country.

Facts and the quest for objectivity

Democracies — and not just in the US — live by discourse, by heated discussions over the best way forward. But these can only exist under certain conditions, and one is that facts must always play a part. Proper discourse isn't possible if every unwelcome argument is countered with the accusation of "fake news!"

Read more: Russia, Iran meddling with US elections: 'Hacking of our hearts and minds'

If this trend is to be stopped, then it will only happen by setting clear priorities in schools. Children must learn how to deal with social media, how to recognize propaganda and learn about activism. They need to know which websites are credible — and which groups aren't.

And this is where media professionals can play a role. We must strive for objectivity, in order to regain our credibility and remain relevant actors in a democratic society.

This commentary has been translated from German.

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl