The year was 2006. A reporter for an independent Moscow newspaper who had uncommonly good access to President Vladimir V. Putin had written an article about the president’s affair with a famous athlete. I was the editor of a monthly magazine and wanted the journalist to expand his report for my publication.
“I made it up,” he said breezily when I called him.
That could mean several things. He could indeed have made the story up. Alternatively, he could have been lying when he said he had made it up. Maybe he had gotten in trouble for publishing it and had to promise to deny it in order to maintain access to the president. On the other hand, if it was made up, he had probably secured Mr. Putin’s consent for the fib — it portrayed the president as the macho man he likes to be. But then why didn’t the journalist want to do another article on the topic? Perhaps they both wanted the story to take on a life of its own. I was going down a rabbit hole. It wasn’t the first time: In my job, this sense of endlessly unfolding confusion had become familiar.
I had spent years teaching young journalists, on the job and in academic settings. How many times had I uttered the phrase “multiple independent sources”? It’s a rule of journalism: Unless witnessed by the reporter, a fact must be corroborated by two or more different sources — people, organizations, publications or documents — that did not get the information from one another. That was a standard I taught and to which I demanded that my staff adhere.
And yet hearing a fellow journalist tell me that he had made up a story did not particularly surprise me. That was what much of the work of journalism had become: a process of weighing probabilities against the personal stakes of sources in order to form a picture of reality based on beliefs — perhaps to a greater extent than on facts.
There was, to me, a familiar tone to an exchange during President-elect Donald J. Trump’s news conference on Wednesday. A journalist for BBC News asked about the allegations in an uncorroborated, leaked report on Mr. Trump published by BuzzFeed News the night before.
“As far as we understand it, the intelligence community are still looking at these allegations, this as false news as you describe it,” the reporter said. “If they come back with any kind of conclusion that any of it stands up, that any of it is true, would you consider your position, would you — ”
Mr. Trump interrupted the reporter to reject the possibility that this could happen, and went on to rail against what he saw as the news media’s tendency to lie. “They’re very, very dishonest people, but it’s just something that we are going to have to live with,” he said. “I guess the advantage I have is that I can speak back. When it happens to somebody that doesn’t have this — doesn’t have that kind of a megaphone, they can’t speak back.”
The president-elect was repeating something that he’d said for months, and that appears to reflect his perception of reality: News outlets are his adversaries, and the only way to win against them is to use a bigger megaphone. Mr. Trump’s war with the news media is fundamentally different from the tension between most other American politicians and journalists. Mr. Trump (much like Mr. Putin) thrives on cacophony, in an environment of ever-shifting realities that makes other people feel disoriented and helpless.
In the past, Mr. Trump’s fights with the news media have generally concerned journalists’ factual reporting that has conflicted with the fog that surrounds Mr. Trump’s view of reality. Mr. Trump, in turn, has sought to drown out facts with denials and attacks. But this time was different: A reporter was asking him to speculate about something that the reporter himself seemed to think was probably false. Mr. Trump’s version of reality got a boost: There was no such thing as truth, only a battle of opinions proffered by different actors, each of whom strives to be loudest.
Speaking to MSNBC’s Chuck Todd the same day, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, Ben Smith, explained the decision to publish the report. It had been circulating among journalists and politicians for weeks, he said, and so had become an “object that is in play, that is having consequences for the way our elected leaders are acting.”
Mr. Smith likened publishing the material to quoting conspiracy theorists who believed that President Obama was not born in the United States. A key difference, however, was that in the “birther” case, journalists could say definitively that the conspiracy theorists’ claims were untrue. They had actual facts to report. In publishing the dossier on Mr. Trump, however, BuzzFeed stated only that it had been unable to verify the allegations. It could not provide readers any help determining the veracity of the report — except, perhaps, the readers’ own opinions.
In the essay “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt pointed out that truth, unlike opinion, is “beyond agreement, dispute, opinion or consent.” Truth doesn’t change depending on how many people accept it. Writing in 1967, Arendt observed a worrisome tendency for factual truth to be countered with opinion and thereby apparently transformed into opinion — becoming subject to debate. She was worried that facts were being disputed out of existence. We are now witnessing the same process in reverse: Dispute is coming first, as though the opinions of a large enough number of people who found this or that allegation “believable” could produce facts where none had been observed or verified.
I have been here before. As Mr. Putin consolidated power in Russia, it became more and more difficult for journalists to report facts. We lost access to many institutions, while others became progressively less trustworthy. With the president often lying or obfuscating and with all of the government brought under the control of the executive branch, we could no longer look to the courts, the police or other state institutions to learn or corroborate facts — if we could get anyone to talk to us or give us documents at all. Reality became squishy.
The same process is gaining speed in the United States. The president-elect lies habitually. The news media are losing access to information — not just because the incoming administration is even less transparent than the outgoing one, and is openly hostile to journalists, but also because full control of both houses of Congress is allowing the Republican Party to make the legislative process more opaque.
At the same time, there is a crisis of trust in the intelligence services: Many people argue that the F.B.I. acted to influence the presidential election; some (including me) believe the combined intelligence services’ report on Russia’s role in the election does not stand up to scrutiny. On top of it all, a large part of the country appears to have firmly replaced reality with a worldview based on opinions.
There are no ready recipes for dealing with this predicament. The media scholar Jay Rosen has urged journalists to move to a model that assumes less access and relies less on “players.” But this cannot compensate for a loss in available, reliable information that journalists can report. It seems inevitable that old rules like “multiple independent sources” will be dropped because they have become untenable. But from my experience in Russia, I know that this doesn’t end well. What is lost in the balance is truth.
Masha Gessen, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, among other books.