Questions by Todd Zwillich, Deputy Bureau Chief for VICE News in Washington and the former host of The Takeaway on public radio.

Todd Zwillich: NPR did a production here, where they pre-ambled the interview with a straight litany of election facts, receipts and debunks they knew Trump was about to lie about. I thought it was really effective. What did it say to you?

Jay Rosen: Certainly the way they did it showed a lot of thought. They anticipated what Trump was going to do in claiming a rigged election. They prepared listeners for what was coming. They pre-contextualized his propagandistic claims in two ways: the conflict within the Republican Party about whether to lead with the battle cry of a stolen election in 2022 and 2024, and the dismal factual record, in which every audit and court case has come to nothing for Trump and his fantasies.
Then they re-contextualized after the interview was over, which brought out the fact that in Georgia Trump’s reckless lies about a stolen election probably cost his party control of the Senate.

And they did all this without resorting to “critics say” or empty displays of both-sides-do-it. When they refuted Trump’s propaganda it was in their own voice, as journalists empowered to say: that’s false. Just look at the headline they used online, “Pressed on his election lies, former President Trump cuts NPR interview short.”

In other words, they were being extremely careful with this material, and they were determined to say: his fraud claims are bunk, he’s got nothing.

Todd Zwillich: What did you think of that strategy?

Jay Rosen: Well, you asked me if these moves were effective. That’s a different question, and it depends on what effect we’re striving for.

If the goal is NPR shows itself and its core audience that it’s not going to let Stop the Steal propaganda go unchallenged, then I would say mission accomplished. If it’s equipping listeners for what they’re about to hear so they have the means to doubt it, the producers did that. If it’s preventing poisonous disinformation from being aired and amplified by NPR, then, no, the interview did not accomplish that.

Trump was able to convey his message through atmospherics, which do not depend on weight-of-evidence conclusions. The tone of suspicion, the denunciation of traitors, the threats to wavering politicians, the waving away of facts: all this came through loud and clear. Steve Inskeep challenging many of Trump’s false claims actually adds to the atmosphere I am describing. 

Now one can say in reply: That’s not NPR’s fault. They did what they could. This is just who Trump is now. The interview succeeded in showing us that!

People can say that, and it makes a kind of sense, but it would not be my view. Here’s the way I put it on Twitter: When you “interview” a zone-flooding liar like Trump, the questions and fact checks proceed in a linear way, while the mendacity grows exponentially. You can object to a lie and come with receipts, but the response to the objection will introduce six new lies that you now have to “check.”

This is sometimes called Brandolini’s law. “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.”

For all the care NPR took — and I agree, it was impressive — the interview could not escape this logic. Which means we have to ask: should Trump be interviewed at all? 

Todd Zwillich: Is there anything broader to learn here about how we consume news about Trump and elections?

Jay Rosen: There can arise political phenomena that overwhelm the tools journalists have in their kit. New tools may require new rules, and that’s a scary thought for consensus figures in the press.