Times of Universal Deceit

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell

Some days, it can seem that black is white and up is down. Take Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Well, apparently that is no longer true.

Facts are apparently fungible now. Countless fake news sites peddle stories that seem plausible to some but outlandish to others. Do you believe that Hillary Clinton is running a sex abuse ring in the basement of a pizza shop? Or that thousands of Trump supporters in Manhattan shouted, “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back.” Neither is true but some of us will believe one while pooh-poohing the other. It’s confirmation bias. With 62% of Americans getting some of their news on social media, more and more people see their Facebook feed and other media as a buffet of delectable stories. Swallow the ones that reinforce your beliefs. Reject the rest.

Our president-elect is, of course, the worst offender. He doesn’t even bother to read. He just makes up facts as he goes. Haven’t you heard? He won the popular vote because millions of fraudulent votes were cast for his opponent. What? The nation’s intelligence agencies report that the Russian government hacked both the Democratic and Republican campaigns but selectively leaked only emails that would damage Democrats? Well, says Trump, that’s wrong! He doesn’t believe inconvenient truths. As former CIA head Michael Hayden responded to the news that the next Commander in Chief chooses not to believe intelligence briefings, “Wow.”

This is the year the Oxford English dictionary announced that “post-truth” is the word of the year. Post-truth is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

The devaluing of objective facts is just one of a confluence of trends that has spawned an existential crisis for journalism. It’s not just that the audiences for newspapers and broadcast news are shrinking and that print ad revenues are falling. It’s that fewer Americans trust reputable media outlets, while more are willing to believe fake news and too many — including the President-elect and some of his nominees for powerful posts — don’t much care about the distinction.

At the same time, the credibility of the “mainstream media” — or what Gallup calls the mass media — has sunk to an all-time low. In September, Gallup found that just 32 percent of the public trusts the press to report news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” the lowest figure since 1972 when Gallup polled the question for the first time. A Pew Research Center survey found that only 22% gave the press an A or a B grade for their performance during the election.

According to Gallup, the biggest drop was among Republicans, whose candidate lashed out at the media at his rallies and on Twitter pretty much every day of his campaign. Trump didn’t just complain about biased coverage; that’s more or less standard for all politicians. Rather he excoriated them, calling them “liars,” “scum,” “corrupt” as he encouraged people at his rallies to scream these epithets at the exhausted travelling press corps assigned to cover him.

Trump is hitting the press while it’s down. The role of watchdog, holding government officials accountable, will fall to less than half the number of full-time daily reporters working in 2000, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ 2015 census. And that was before the latest news of print advertising’s precipitous drop. This thinning of journalistic manpower may be making the press more vulnerable to media hoaxes and slopping reporting. The venerable Washington Post had to walk back two stories it covered in the second week of December. Add another smudge on all our reputations to the barrage unleashed by our president-elect.

As journalism struggles simultaneously for credibility and survival, who will ensure that we have an informed citizenry, the basis of our democracy? The First Amendment protected the press, Justice Hugo Black said, “so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” Now we face an administration that seems hell-bent on secrecy and disinformation. Trump’s and his protégés deny everything from climate change to his serious conflicts of interest and decline to answer legitimate questions from the media. If the American public cannot count on an agreed set of facts, how will our democracy survive?