BY KATHLEEN BARTZEN CULVER
Mr. Raffensperger, welcome to the club.
When Donald Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger an “enemy of the people” in November, the President cast the Republican politician into an imagined cabal he had previously reserved for one group: news media. Beginning shortly after his inauguration in 2017, Trump has repeatedly deemed journalists the “fake news media” and disparaged them as enemies of the people on Twitter and in public speeches.
The term felt shocking when he first used it, with echoes from Stalin’s murderous Soviet regime. It sounded like the language of an authoritarian, not the leader of the longest standing democracy on Earth. But as with so many norm-shattering things the President did, it somehow managed to lose its shock value when it was repeated over and over and replaced by statements and actions somehow more out of the norm.
So while it may not feel shocking to hear the President call Raffensperger an enemy of the people, we must recognize the statement for what it is: a sweeping and scandalous attempt to undermine this democracy. And in the same ways news media had to wrestle with traditional journalism ethics in figuring out how to cover the Trump presidency, we now stand at a moment that demands an ethics for all public communication.
What was Raffensperger’s sin? He publicly stated that he would stay true to his oath of office and certify the legal vote count in Georgia, delivering the state to President-elect Joe Biden, rather than Trump. His stance drew severe backlash from some in the Trump camp, including calls for him to resign, death threats, and other harassment, and a “#RaffenspergerForPrison” hashtag on Twitter. But he stood strong, writing, “In times of uncertainty, when the integrity of our political system is most at risk, the integrity of our politicians is paramount.”
In his statements, Raffensperger was expressing a moral obligation to the truth, the same commitment ethical journalists make. And when our “political system is most at risk,” it is critical that others affirm that same obligation in all public communication. Journalists commit to seek and report the truth. Public officials, civic leaders, and others in positions of influence—from pundits to average Twitter users—must seek to defend truth in much the same way.
Some questions of truth and falsity are easily answered. “Is it raining?” That comes with a yes-or-no answer. What’s much harder to suss out is how hard it’s raining, how soon it will stop, who is affected by the rain and how. We can have legitimate arguments about those kinds of questions. Our opinions matter there. But there is no legitimacy in denying that it’s raining when it’s actually raining. And unfortunately, some seem to have come to believe that such denial is just fine when it’s in service of the political end of winning.
The consequences can be deadly, as the politicization of COVID-19 clearly demonstrates. We were fed a false binary that we could have civil liberties or public health but not both. And somehow—I may never figure out exactly how—we ate it up. There are truths to the novel coronavirus. Masks, distancing, and gathering only in small groups reduce the spread of the virus. Reducing the spread lowers rates of illness, hospitalization, and death. The United States is faring badly in each of those categories because we did not listen to those truths.
This moment—fraught politically and socially—requires all of us to commit to an ethics of public communication that prioritizes truth as a necessary element for citizens to retain their power in this representative democracy. Sometimes the old adage is exactly correct: “the truth hurts.” Our candidate did not prevail or preventive health efforts we find uncomfortable do make a difference. But that makes truth more, not less, valuable to us.
Today we need to reassert our common commitment to truth. Our democracy—and our lives—depend on it.
- Kathleen Bartzen Culver is the James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics, an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Long interested in the implications of digital media on journalism and public interest communication, Culver focuses on the ethical dimensions of social tools, technological advances and networked information. She combines these interests with a background in law and free expression. She also serves as visiting faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and was the founding editor of PBS MediaShift’s education section.