Journalist and author Masha Gessen believes that when leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin lie, it is not for the conventional reason of getting others to believe what they say, but to maintain power.
“Lying is the message for both of those men,” said Gessen. “They lie to assert power. They lie to assert power over reality itself. Every time they do it, they assert the right to say whatever they want, whenever they want. That is a demonstration of power.”
Gessen’s lecture, “Journalism as a Tool of Resistance in a Post-Truth World,” was held on Nov. 6 in Shideler Hall as a part of the Humanities Center’s Altman Lecture Series.
The Humanities Center is promoting a “Truth and Lies” theme this year, a topic Gessen has been covering for years. Currently, they write for The New Yorker, but Gessen has also written many non-fiction books, including “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” and “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.”
“I feel like I got a little bit of a head start on thinking about this because I have been writing about Russia for more than 20 years, most of the time about Vladimir Putin,” said Gessen.
Although they covered serious topics in their lecture, Gessen kept a light-hearted sense of humor and made subtle jokes throughout. When the audio system faltered as Gessen said the word “transgender,” they were quick to usher out a questioning “Transgender?” drawing in a laugh from the audience.
Gessen elaborated on the ways in which Trump and Putin lie. They said the way Trump lies is more obvious and easy to detect.
“It seemed like blabber,” Gessen said, referring to both Trump’s words at a Helsinki press conference and his lying style as a whole.
Gessen went on to describe Putin’s lying style, which they said is much more coherent than Trump’s.
“He showers people with figures and numbers and facts,” said Gessen. “But when you check those numbers and facts it turns out that most of them are either completely made up, or usually exaggerated or misconstrued. Basically, they are lies.”
Although both men have different styles of lying, Gessen said they have the same effect on listeners. Both are meant to confuse the public and blur the lines between what is true and what is not.
Gessen also acknowledged that journalists face a tough challenge in covering Trump’s presidency. His communication with the American people via Twitter and press briefings force journalists to walk on thin ice.
“Every time we face a Trumpian lie or a Trumpian incendiary tweet, we face the question of to what extent we are augmenting evil by engaging with it,” said Gessen. “He is the President of the United States. What he says matters.”
Gessen used Trump’s tweet suggesting that the FCC should revoke NBC’s license, despite the fact that NBC is not licensed by the FCC, as an example of journalists being forced to engage with the President’s false information.
“But, the moment we were writing about this tweet, we were engaging and making thinkable that which had been unthinkable,” said Gessen. “And that is a trap. You can’t not do it, and you can’t do it.”
Gessen suggests journalists be more aware of the context in which they produce stories covering the president.
“The recipe that I have is be aware of the trap,” they said. “At least write about the trap while you are in the trap. At least that creates context for what we are doing and it does give us a chance of holding on to some kind of sense of shared reality.”