It’s the word “truth” that really rang in my ears. Throughout the impeachment trial—has it really just been a week since it ended?—the House managers kept coming back to it: “This is what the evidence has overwhelmingly shown,” Rep. Eric Swalwell said as he laid out how the president of the United States had incited a violent mob. “And it’s also the truth.”
“Also” felt out of place there, but also profoundly apropos—a four-letter reminder that there was something larger at stake than the foreordained vote. The impeachment managers knew they might not persuade most of the Republicans in the chamber. But what they could not fail at was establishing a record of the facts. As Rep. Jamie Raskin had said in quoting his father, the progressive leader Marcus Raskin, “Democracy needs a ground to stand upon. And that ground is the truth.”
Del. Stacey Plaskett came back to that in her goosebump-inducing introduction: “I’ve learned throughout my life that preparation and truth can carry you far, can allow you to speak truth to power,” she said. “I’ve learned that as a young Black girl growing up in the projects in Brooklyn…and now as an adult woman representing an island territory speaking to the US Senate. Truth and facts are overwhelming that our president incited a mob to storm the Capitol, to attempt to stop the certification of a presidential election.”
That hit home because establishing that basic ground of truth and facts is also journalism’s mission. Digging deep and piecing together the facts often does not lead to the kind of swift impact we dream about (and that always materializes in the reporter movies we secretly watch for a morale boost). But it’s the basis for all the work that follows so that, eventually, real accountability will come.
Accountability is critical for our own work, too: As a nonprofit, reader supported news organization, it’s important for us to understand what you, our community, care about. So as we get ready for what’s next in this post-Trump (but also not) world, I hope you can share what you’re thinking about how truth and facts make a difference at the bottom of this post.
Here’s part of how we’re thinking about it at Mother Jones: We can’t let disappointment over a failure of accountability wash away the power of truth-telling itself. We now have a thorough account of what happened on and before January 6, an account that stood virtually unrebutted by the president’s team. Alternative facts, so often the first and last resort of Trumpworld, failed them this time. Even the senators who voted to acquit took refuge in constitutional fallacies rather than rebutting the evidence. And more facts will emerge as the investigations continue—in the courts, perhaps in government investigations, and for sure among journalists who take accountability seriously.
We also know that a bipartisan majority of the Senate, a majority far greater than we’re used to for legislative action these days, saw these facts for what they were, and the public did as well. Only 29 percent of Americans think Trump was not responsible for the insurrection.
Twenty-nine percent is a bigger number than it should be. But it’s not “half the country,” as commentators so often put it. And it’s not a number that will gain you durable power in a democracy, even one rife with voter suppression—as none other than Mitch McConnell confirmed when, just hours after his acquittal vote, he warned the president that Republican candidates might no longer be chosen just by his endorsement: “The only thing I care about is electability.” He knows that running against reality, past a certain point, is dangerous.
What about the rest of us, then? How do we show up for reality?
First off, by solidifying the ground of truth on which democracy stands. It’s been eroded by the flood of lies of the past few years, and by centuries of lies about foundational realities such as chattel slavery. Those who benefit from lying are deeply entrenched. But they are also deeply threatened by truth-telling because it can inspire civic action and systemic reform.
It will be tempting for many in the media to move on from Trump, especially during this interlude of relative silence from the man himself. But our democracy can’t afford that—not when we have so much more work on the systemic failures that brought him to power. Lack of accountability means impunity, and impunity means it will happen again.
So here’s what this means for Mother Jones’ reporting right now. Along with investigating what happened, we have to document and clearly name what is happening, without sugarcoating or false equivalencies. That has meant naming and investigating the racist and authoritarian forces around which Trump’s campaign and presidency were built. It’s meant taking seriously Trump’s incitement of violence and his evolution into terrorist rhetoric. Right now, it means clearly articulating why he got away with it: As my colleague Nathalie Baptiste wrote, “In a moment of unusual truth-telling, Trump was actually correct to bill himself as the president of ‘law and order’— if you consider that ‘law and order’ has just been another way of sanctioning the subjugation of Black people, also known as white supremacy. Or, put simply, ‘Consequences for thee, not for me.'”
And finally, we have to show what can happen to change the underlying conditions. My colleague Ari Berman has been one of the few journalists calling attention to how legislators are pushing to advance voter suppression: Right now, for example, the Georgia legislature is considering an anti–voting rights bill so harsh that one advocate calls it “Jim Crow with a suit and tie.” But, Ari reports, for the first time in more than a decade Democrats are also in a position to pass sweeping pro-democracy reforms—if they feel the pressure to do so.
Journalists’ job, at a time like this, is to show how bad things are, but also how they can get better. We can cover not only how the fossil fuel industry is spreading climate disinformation, but how science-based action is making a difference. We can show how destructive a profit-driven and racist prison system has been, but also how powerful the alternatives to mass incarceration are. No matter what we’re covering, and no matter who’s in the White House, the key questions our reporters ask are the same:
- Where is the power, and how is it being abused?
- Who is spreading disinformation, and how?
- Who is being hurt the most?
- How is change being made?
Del. Plaskett is right: Preparation and truth can take you far. As we prepare for all that’s ahead, we’d love to hear from the Mother Jones community. What do you think?