The News Has Always Been Fake
There is obviously some merit to the claim that false stories are becoming more widespread than ever before. And yet, I detect a bit of sour grapes in the columns of elite opinion makers. I guess that no one likes to be commoditized.
It’s understandable though. When a person’s identity is threatened, it is natural to assign blame. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, journalist suffered doubly. First, they had to admit that they were wrong about the election, a hard thing in and of itself. But harder still, they had to face the reality that what they do is no longer so special. Shaping the consensus now happens on sites besides their own, spreading on the internet instead of the Acela corridor. Is it any wonder that they so easily believe that the Russians are behind everything.
Presented with the effectiveness of fake news, what identity can a news writer logically cling to, besides as a cog in a more mainstream propaganda machine. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing but the fact that many Trump voters would believe the fake Denver Guardian as easily as the esteemed Atlantic should inspire pause instead of loathing. Instead of blaming the Russian bogeyman for influencing our election (not that it doesn’t happen or that we don’t do it too. See this, this, and this), maybe the news media should take a long look in the mirror.
If they did, they might see that the news has always been fake. In the area that counts most for Americans, the wars that we wage, almost everything reported has been at least a tad counterfeit. From FDRs fake Nazi maps, to the lie of the Gulf of Tonkin, to the massively exaggerated body count in Kosovo, to Judith Miller’s claims about Iraqi WMDs. In each major conflict of the 20th century, false stories were created to sway public opinion and these stories were then dutifully reported by an unquestioning news media.
Lest we forget, war journalism in the US was built on lying. In 1898, the great Joseph Pulitzer, a man whose name is now synonymous with journalistic integrity (and whose Puliltzer prize has gone to luminaries such as Judith Miller), railroaded Americans into the Spanish American war. His exaggerations, along with those of William Randolph Hearst created the first concerns about the power of the news media and coined the phrase yellow journalism. Today the language is subtler but no less brazen. In a rare moment of forthrightness this May, Obama advisor Ben Rhodes basically bragged about how easy it was to “shape the narrative”, or rather manipulate the media’s coverage, of the Iran deal.
Ok you might say. American news regarding war and foreign policy is suspect, but surely other areas of coverage are trustworthy. Even though the majority of important events concern the government, this proposition is worth considering. US foreign policy news comes from very few sources, is promoted by a government with a hidden agenda, and is presented by journalists with limited information and unknown biases. Can we say that the situation is much better in other areas of life? I’m afraid the answer is, not really.
The Bush administration was a disaster in many ways, but it was great for killing shibboleths. As the Iraq war exposed the complicity of the media in war, the financial crisis revealed its lie of objectivity concerning the economy. In the run up to 2008, the business sections of every major newspaper were absent any criticism of the low interest rates, predatory lending, and general fraud that would lead to the crisis. Even after the dust had settled, the NYT was publishing stories by ambitious reporters (who wouldn’t mind that book deal) that were sourced solely by banks (a party with an agenda) with the goal of swaying public opinion. Matt Taibbi as usual does the best takedowns in this field. So, it seems we can add corporations as well as the government to the list of topics on which we cannot assume credible reporting. Luckily that only covers about 90% of what affects people’s lives.
This is why it makes me so crazy when I read our supposedly good and objective western journalists complain about fake news and how it is secretly a Russian plot. Do they not stop for a second to ask that age old question “cui bono” when they see the Russians blamed? It may well be that Russian intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee, but given the credibility gap in our press, can we really believe such claims out of hand? For instance, the one source for the Russian hacking stories came from a joint memo by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Luckily such august agencies and the people who head them are trustworthy right? It’s not like said Director of National Intelligence, one James Clapper has previously lied publicly and got away with it. Oh wait he has.
It is not my intention to suggest that all news is false. I’m sure that many reporters are good people who endeavor to enlighten their audience about the actual workings of the world. Still, all people are deeply flawed and easily manipulated. The Russian public learned that reading Pravda did not give them a truly accurate view of the world, so why should the American people expect that from the New York Times? The so-called objectivity of the news has always been a sham. In the new internet age, we may only wonder whether a difference in degree really is a difference in kind