In case you hadn’t heard, Barack Obama is releasing the first volume of his two-part memoir A Promised Land next week. And ahead of its release, the former president is participating in the centuries-old tradition of a book tour. Except instead of swinging by your local indie bookstore for a reading, he is sitting down for interviews with major media figures like Oprah Winfrey and Scott Pelley of “60 Minutes.” On Sunday evening, Obama engaged in a frank and wide-ranging interview with Pelley, touching on everything from George Floyd to Donald Trump, and importantly, the media’s problematic role in spreading divisiveness and disinformation across the American electorate.
Speaking on the matter of truth and media, Obama said, “We have gone through a presidency that disregarded a whole host of basic institutional norms, expectations we had for a president that had been observed by Republicans and Democrats previously. And maybe most importantly, and most disconcertingly, what we’ve seen is what some people call truth decay, something that’s been accelerated by outgoing President Trump, the sense that not only do we not have to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t even matter.”
Pelley responded by citing a specific, recent incidence of “truth decay” in the form of baseless accusations of election fraud and then asked Obama what those claims are doing to our country. Evidently, what’s more concerning to Obama than Trump’s Twitter tantrums are the “other Republican officials who clearly know better but are going along with this, are humoring him in this fashion. It is one more step in delegitimizing not just the incoming Biden administration, but democracy generally.”
That’s a serious—and legitimate—accusation given many Republicans refusal to call on the president to concede. Again though, Obama pointed to the media as part of the problem, saying on various occasions that the distorted views espoused by partisan networks and the sharing of conspiracy theories across social media platforms does a great disservice to the American public. “We are very divided,” said Obama. “Not just the politicians, the voters are divided. It has now become a contest where issues, facts, and policies don’t matter as much as identity and beating the other guy. That’s taken priority. I do think the current media environment adds to that greatly. This democracy doesn’t work if we don’t have an informed citizenry.”
What Obama is describing is nothing short of an emergency, and it’s growing more urgent by the minute. Earlier this week Joe Biden’s Communications Director Bill Russo rang similar alarms when he published a series of since-deleted Tweets condemning Facebook for its mishandling of election-related conspiracy theories. As for what to do about social media platforms and the voters they feed, Obama recommended some good old fashioned collaboration. “We are going to have to work with the media and the tech companies to find ways to inform the public better about the issues,” he said, “and to bolster the standards that ensure we can separate truth from fiction.”
That may sound like a tall order, but Obama, the steady and experienced optimist he is, believes we’re up to the task. “I at least still have faith we can create a more perfect union,” said Obama. “Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
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