Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

The Power of Good Information

Barack Obama is clearly itching to join the political wars of 2016. He can't throw his full weight behind Hillary Clinton until she officially disposes of Bernie Sanders, so for now he's playing media critic, focusing on how press coverage has fueled the rise of Donald Trump.

"This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show. This is a contest for president of the United States," he recently warned journalists at an awards ceremony. "What I'm concerned about is the degree to which reporting and information starts emphasizing the spectacle and the circus. Because that's not something we can afford."

No, it's not. But the president was hopeful, looking forward to the fall campaign. "The American people, they've got good judgment, they've got good instincts -- as long as they get good information," he said.

So far, the president's optimism is hardly justified. Millions of voters have backed Trump in Republican primaries, ignoring his propensity for stretching facts and spreading lies. They've swallowed the Trump Kool-Aid (along with his steaks and wine, apparently) and no amount of "good information" seems to shake their faith in the Dear Leader.

But that was in the primaries, when a tiny fraction of Americans voted. The general election is a very different landscape. We share the president's belief that there are still plenty of reasonable voters out there who will exercise "good judgment" if offered "good information."

"You believe in the importance of a well-informed electorate," the president told his journalistic audience. "You've staked your careers on it. Our democracy needs you more than ever."

There has developed in recent years a truly pernicious idea: that there is no such thing as an independent reality, a shared set of facts that can be explored and evaluated by professional journalists. In this view, every assertion, every analysis, is totally subjective -- colored by personal bias and experience. Impartiality is a myth, a unicorn, that doesn't exist in the real world.

As the president notes, we've staked our careers on a very different belief system, a system that says the journalism of verification and accountability is actually more real and more valuable than ever.

A candidate like Trump (or a president like Obama, for that matter) can utilize numerous social media platforms to communicate directly with legions of followers -- unchecked and unfiltered. Some outside force, some independent institution, has to hold those powerful voices accountable for what they say.

Someone has to ask: Is that true? What will that cost? Is that feasible? Or moral? How will that impact allies, enemies, world markets? Someone has to stand up for the vital "importance of a well-informed electorate."

The media's failures covering Trump are well-documented. TV news provided him with $1.9 billion worth of free exposure through mid-March, according to a New York Times report. His GOP rivals received less than $1.2 billion worth of airtime, combined, and Clinton had only $750 million worth.

The reason for this gross imbalance is obvious. "You're under significant financial pressures," the president told journalists and media executives. Some, like Les Moonves of CBS, openly admit that economic values have outweighed news values when it comes to covering Trump.

"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Moonves cheered back in February. "The money's rolling in and this is fun. ... It's a terrible thing to say, but: Bring it on, Donald. Keep going."

Terrible is the right word. It's great that news organizations like CBS are making money, but maximizing profits cannot and should not be their only metric for making news judgments. A programming model that features All Trump All The Time, just because it attracts valuable clicks, violates basic journalistic precepts.

The issue is not just how often Trump is on, but how he's treated when he is on. Every show on every network should ban phone interviews. Make him come on in person and answer tough questions face to face.

Even more important, every news organization should be devoting sizeable resources to exploring Trump's past. (And Clinton's, as well, but after 25 years in the public and political spotlight, her background is far better known than his.) How has he behaved in professional and personal situations? How has he handled critics and crises? What kind of judgment, character and temperament has he displayed over the years, especially when faced with stress or danger?

This is the "good information" voters need to make a "good judgment" about any candidate who wants to be president. Only an independent, professional press can provide it.

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