The Weekend Desk Report
My old friend, mentor and journalism professor David S. Allen posted this recently in a media ethics Facebook group:
As have many of us, I've been thinking a lot about journalism ethics and political life in the last few months. I haven't been able to escape this belief that something is missing - that journalism continues to fail to capture the reality of the moment. The more I think about it, the more I think that at least some of this is embedded in the role truth plays within the epistemology of journalism.
My takeaway from this is that, of course, truth matters, but that journalists ought to not just report lies but report on the processes candidates (and, truth be told, corporations and others) use to construct their lies. In one sense, the media is doing that now with its bushel of stories about "fake news," but that's too little too late.
Instead of merely reporting what candidates say, perhaps the media needs to report what candidates are doing with what they say. For example, Trump used specific rhetorical strategies at his rallies night after night to construct a belief system among his supporters impenetrable by journalism. (Perhaps he got those strategies from the book of Hitler's speeches reportedly at his bedside, though he also reportedly doesn't read. At any rate, see "Donald Trump Supporters Are Using a Nazi Word to Attack Journalists.")
Instead of calling out something as untrue, perhaps the media should describe why a candidate is telling a particular untruth, and who they are manipulating in doing so. (The danger here is to do what too much political journalism does - speak as if the voter is not in the room. Talk to the voter, not about the voter. Journalism is not a private discussion among elites.)
For example, it was really important to Trump that he make voters believe he opposed the Iraq War, and interventions in Egypt, Libya and Syria, when he in fact did not. Exposing the truth didn't seem to matter a whit, but a renewed American isolationism borne of major foreign policy disasters did, and that's what Trump was cynically and opportunistically connecting with (along with his insatiable need to always be perceived as being right, even if he has to reconstruct his past.) Was this less important than the facts of the lie? No. But what is the purpose of the lie? In other words, after reporting the lie, report on the truth of the lie - how and why he keeps telling it. Some journalists will argue that it's up to the opposing campaign to do this. I say it's up to journalists to have their own agenda, which is determining the truths most important to democracy instead of having their agenda set by candidates, officeholders and people with power, which is how they get manipulated now.
Those foreign policy "positions," for example, fit perfectly with an always-popular America First theme - American soldiers should not die defending godforsaken Third World countries filled with dirty people who don't believe in democracy. And we won't allow those folks into our country either. We are America!
In other words, it's not just important that he lied, but that he lied in service of a particular message he was selling, and that message (and why some folks were buying it) deserved scrutiny itself.
So the questions to the candidate and his surrogates shouldn't suggest it's debatable whether the claims are true, but be based on the inviolable fact that they aren't. The factual lie has already been determined. Now go after the truth. Because none of it is a mistake; it's all of a piece. Part of that piece may be the utterings of a pathological liar, but not the whole of it. Much of Trump's campaign, for example, was originally conceived by Paul Manafort, who used many of the same techniques to elect a strongman in Ukraine.
Manafort's critics in Kyiv are scathing. "He's an evil genius," Alex Kovzhun, who spent a decade working for Tymoshenko, beginning in 2001, said. "He doesn't work statesmen. He works dictators and all-round bastards. He sells the unsellable product. If you have a dead horse and you need to sell it, you call him. He works bad guys. They pay more, of course."
And now the methods go back overseas: "Euroskeptic leaders said they would study Trump's freewheeling campaign and seek to replicate it in their own nations."
I will say I see promising (though far, far too late) signs of the media stiffening - more than I see "normalization." What I'm not sure can be overcome is reaching the people who are immune to journalism - which seems to be the great bulk of Trump supporters - and instead rely on "fake news" and propaganda outlets by which they have created a deep, and deeply false, belief system from which there seems to be no way back. While these folks mainly live in media-deprived rural areas, they also reside on the Northwest and Southwest Sides and read John Kass. They will not be persuaded; the only hope is that they are eventually outrun by demographics, including not just people of color but white male Millennials who know better.
A lot of folks have been looking to Orwell to explain where we're at, and I would certainly never discourage that. But I think we need to look at two others, and perhaps therein find the solution to where journalism ought to go: Walter Lippmann and Joseph Goebbels.
Lippmann's Public Opinion was required reading when I was in journalism school, and for good reason. Lippmann is problematic in his own way, but also full of insight that still resonates and that the media still must grapple with. From Wikipedia:
The introduction describes man's inability to interpret the world: "The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance" between people and their environment. People construct a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone's pseudo-environment is a fiction. People "live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones."
Of news and truth:
The pertinent facts are never provided completely and accurately as a fraction of the whole, they are often arranged to portray a certain, subjective interpretation of an event. Often, those who know the "real" (true) environment construct a favorable, fictitious pseudo-environment in the public mind to suit private needs. Propaganda is inherently impossible without a barrier of censorship between the event and the public. As a consequence, the mass communication media, by their very nature as vehicles for informational transmission, are essentially vulnerable to manipulation.
Public Opinion proposes that the increased power of propaganda and the specialized knowledge required for effective political decisions have rendered the traditional notion of democracy impossible. The phrase "manufacture of consent" was introduced, which the public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman used as the title of their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
As for Goebbels, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda" when it came to the Field Museum. As so often happens, you think you know about something and then you learn so much more. (Even more important to my experience with this exhibit was watching the experience of the kids from Robeson High School whom I was helping to chaperone there. One girl, though, thought Hitler was great. Why? "He fought for what he believed in." I'm so grateful to have witnessed her classmates try to reason with her, starting with the obvious notion that what he believed in was evil. I was proud to stand back and let them hash it out on their own; my involvement, I quickly figured out, wasn't needed, and may have been counterproductive anyway.)
I've taken to YouTube in the last few weeks to study Hitler's speeches, Nazi rhetoric and even (perhaps most fascinating) the words of former German soldiers looking back on their own experience trying to understand what happened.
(Just to note: We're in a moment when both Trump supporters and the Trump resistance are using Nazi references. Let that soak in.)
The key question for journalism now seems to be not just if truth matters, but if journalism matters - or really, if journalism matters to enough people to make the kind of difference it should.
From Politico editor Susan Glasser (one to talk, given Politico's often-abhorrent performance, but still):
I have a different and more existential fear today about the future of independent journalism and its role in our democracy. And you should too. Because the media scandal of 2016 isn't so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it's about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn't seem to matter. Stories that would have killed any other politician - truly worrisome revelations about everything from the federal taxes Trump dodged to the charitable donations he lied about, the women he insulted and allegedly assaulted, and the mob ties that have long dogged him - did not stop Trump from thriving in this election year. Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn't work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated.
Now, some might say, hey, he faced a candidate just as unappealing (and to folks like Kass, more untruthful). But really, as bad a case as you can make against Hillary Clinton, it doesn't come close to the case against Trump. You can match them topic by topic - lies told, conflicts of interest held, foundation vs. foundation - and it's not even close. And only one is an existential threat to the nation.
I can't help but think, though, that all of this "truthiness" didn't start with Trump, though it may end with him. Trump denies truth on a grand scale, but politicians, corporations and other powers in public policy circles have denied the importance of truth for a long time - if not forever. And the media has largely gone along with it, normalizing lies as "spin" and "public relations," and manipulative politics as "smart" in how it wins elections.
It's as if elites are just putting on a play: We lie and you in the media try to catch us and sometimes you do and sometimes you don't and then we all go to the same Christmas parties and laugh about it.
Because I'd really like to know: Does Rahm Emanuel care about truth? The record seems clear that he does not; just power. Does Bruce Rauner care about truth? The record seems clear that he does not; just advancing his own agenda. Do corporate executives care about truth? The record seems clear that they do not; just propaganda in the form of advertising, marketing and PR that safeguards profits.
Little in our culture honors truth. Truth has been so degraded, from the nonstop scandals, greed and hypocrisy of college football to the codes of silence inside our police departments to banks still committing "massive consumer fraud" to various consumer abuses like aloe vera that doesn't contain aloe vera - we've long lived in post-truth world.
In the world of politics, post-truthiness was acceptable as long as it was delivered within a set of agreed-upon rules. From my professor friend David Allen:
Found some press commentary amusing. Trump people have come out and openly admitted they are lying. The press is disgusted - politicians lie? Everything was fine as long as no one admitted they were lying. I remember Woodward saying something like like that once in an interview with William Greider.
(See also, Greider's 1992 Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal Of American Democracy.)
As I've been saying for years, the media has a Quality Issue. But besides its inability to consistently do respectable work, the media's biggest problem is going along with the pols and powerbrokers who don't believe in truth. They are hailed for their very ability to craft images and spin and manipulate the media. Journalists even spend a fair amount of time publicly offering their own advice as to how to do those very things!
How sad is it that the media had to be goaded into being fact-checkers this campaign season? Hasn't that been the primary job all along? We now have to separately fact-check our own reports because we're incapable of doing it in real time!
In other words, stenographers first, reporters and editors second.
(And yet, there will always be a place in the media for people like Michael Wolff.)
But maybe we're getting this wrong, and maybe this is what my friend was getting at too: Maybe it's a post-fact world we're living in, not a post-truth world. Because facts are facts, but they are not necessarily the truth. (Team A beat Team B in college football on Saturday, and that's a fact. But the truth may be that Team B is still the better team.)
And maybe that's what is so hard for journalism to grapple with. (Reporters using the old-fashioned conventions of journalism to weigh facts in determining if the alt-right, Breitbart and Steve Bannon are white supremacists are missing the glaringly obvious truth.)
I'm reminded of what journalist Masha Gessen said recently:
We really have to figure out how to tell the truth and not just report the facts.
Sadly, given journalism's continuing inability to do the latter at a consistent rate, I'm skeptical of its ability to do the former. A change of imagination, as Gessen suggests, indeed is needed. Or, as I've been saying for a long time, the mindset of journalists has to change. And there is hardly a group more resistant to change than journalists. You'd think they'd be on the forefront of change and reform, seeing as how they report on the need for everybody else to do those things. And seeing as how change and reform is inherent in the mission of journalism; if even by objective reporting you are not trying to provoke change that will improve our lives, why bother? Journalism is not - or should not be - a profession of the status quo. And now the profession must change even faster.
P.S.: I still believe in facts. But facts alone are not enough.
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Posted on December 4, 2016
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