The conflict between government and the Fourth Estate that Americans now witness is illuminating the relationship between politics and information. What happens to a representative political system when truth and reality become contested, or even subverted, by actors within the institution itself? Political chaos is a sorry and dangerous state of affairs in a nation’s life. Informational chaos may be equally threatening.—The Editor.
Many Americans wonder these days whether the nation’s president had significant contact with Russian leaders in the run-up to the 2016 election. We’re also puzzled as to whether our old Cold War antagonist jacked the election itself or had some role in setting U.S. policy. The president has not been clear or forthcoming on any of this, creating a fog of vagueness and confusion.
During the campaign, President Donald J. Trump cut off press credentials to The Washington Post, the U.S. capital’s paper of record. At press conferences, he scolds reporters from credible media outlets, charging that they come from biased and bogus organizations. When Press Secretary Sean Spicer was caught overestimating the attendance at Trump’s January inauguration, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway chalked up the discrepancy to “alternative facts,” a phrase that caused sales of George Orwell’s dystopian “1984” to surge. But to millions of Americans suspicious of the press, those words reinforced the sense that “the media” has its own reality and “the people” another, and that the two rarely overlap.
We’re living now in a “destabilized” world where truth is under assault, says Lawrence Wenner, Von Der Ahe Chair in Communication and Ethics in the College of Communication and Fine Arts. Truth, he says, “can’t overcome the rise of spin, distortion and opinion” masquerading as fact.
Katherine Pickert, a former Time magazine reporter and assistant professor of English in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, describes it as the “increasing degrading of the truth, the sense that there isn’t any truth, and that journalists are inherently dishonest.”
Rather than being met with a rousing show of support for the press and its historic role as the Fourth Estate, the news media has virtually no prestige left in much of Middle America. At times, in fact, it seems like truth itself — and the notion that such a thing is possible — is under attack.
“One of my goals is to get that part of the country to trust me,” says Carol Costello, a veteran correspondent and former host of “CNN Newsroom” who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York to join her spouse, LMU President Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., in Los Angeles. “It keeps me up at night.”
Politicians and other powerful people have mocked, assailed and tried to discredit the news media and other bearers of bad news for millennia: The phrase “shoot the messenger” — and the accompanying practice — is thought to go back to the Roman Republic and ancient China.
As extreme as press-bashing is, it has firm historical roots. And while its origins are not exclusively on the political right, a founding father of Western conservatism — the 18th century Irish politician and writer Edmund Burke — was an early press-basher.
“Burke said that the dissatisfaction that led to the French Revolution was produced by the press,” says Dermot Ryan, professor of English in BCLA. Since Burke was a vocal opponent of the French Revolution — he warned that it had unleashed vulgar popular forces that would spread, uncontrolled, across the continent — this was close to accusing the press of treason. “From the very get-go, he was trying to identify traitors in England who support the Revolution. For Burke, the press didn’t describe reality, it produced events.” The day’s intellectual reactionaries, Ryan says, considered the press “a cabal.”
The United States was not free of such paranoia: In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which outlawed serious criticism of the government and led to the imprisonment of publishers and reporters.
These days, the internet has complicated the story: “Technology has allowed this to happen,” says Evelyn McDonnell, BCLA professor of journalism and new media who heads LMU’s journalism program. Much of the excitement about digital technology is that it removes the middleman. “Twitter allows Trump to speak directly to people without going through The Washington Post or The New York Times.” It turns out, McDonnell says, that we need a filter after all.
Most of the opposition to the press in the United States has come from the political right, from the denunciations by President Richard Nixon (1969–74) and his first vice president, Spiro Agnew (“nattering nabobs of negativism”), to Karl Rove, senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, who jeered the press and other believers in empirical reality as “the reality-based community” in a 2004 New York Times Magazine story. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” Rove told Times reporter Ron Suskind. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
But the left — including the cultural and intellectual left — has itself to blame in part for the erosion of a central reality, McDonnell says. Deconstruction and Postmodernism, literary theories that became influential in the ’70s and ’80s, often preached that truth is “constructed,” not absolute. The most quoted left-of-center scholar since the 1960s has been Noam Chomsky, who argues that consensus is “manufactured.”
Still, the state of things has gone far beyond what these thinkers could have dreamed of. Not long ago, says McDonnell, the phrase “fake news” referred to “patently untrue sites created by the proverbial Macedonian teenager.” Now the term is casually used by the U.S. president to describe The New York Times.
For Costello, these tensions have just become a lot more tangible. Soon she will launch a Monday-to-Friday show on cable station HLN called “Across America With Carol Costello.” The show aims to look at and speak to the part of the country often overlooked by the news media — the rural and suburban parts of the Midwest and South.
Costello comes from this part of the world: She was born and raised in Ohio, and attended college there. And she’s all too aware of how little credibility her field retains with some readers and viewers. Her own mother, who still lives in Costello’s Buckeye-State hometown, voted for Trump and considers a lot of news reporting nonsense. “That’s how bad the distrust of media has become,” the former anchor says.
Costello’s goal is to look at the region without condescension, but also to call people out when they lie or evade the truth. “If I work for cable news, I have to be totally transparent and open about who I am and where I come from,” she says. “I’ll be totally honest with them — ‘I have a point of view.’ Nobody believes in objectivity anymore.”
In some ways, Costello says, the challenges to journalists are not new. “It’s simple: Do your job, and be honest with your audience. And don’t be smug. Be tough and humble — you have to show people you are fighting for them.”
The press, though, has its work cut out for it. The president’s addresses sometimes flirt with a populist demagoguery that resembles anti-clericalism. “I’m making this presentation directly to the American people, with the media present, which is an honor to have you (sic),” he said at a February press conference. “This morning, because many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth, and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that they deserve (sic).”
Some — and not only members of the press — are freighted by this, including Sean Dempsey, S.J., a BCLA professor of history. Dempsey sees parallels between approaches of the current administration and “strategies used by totalitarian regimes for the past 100 or 150 years. The Jesuits and Catholics have been the subjects of conspiracy theories for centuries now. We’re like the original globalist cabal.”
There may be a silver lining in the gathering storm. “Donald Trump has reminded a lot of journalists how important their jobs are,” Pickert says. “We’re seeing the value of adversarial journalism — that we don’t need to trust everything we hear, that we can’t just be stenographers. CNN has just hired reporters for a new investigative unit. BuzzFeed is doing a lot of investigative reporting. Vox does good work. It’s an exciting time, if you don’t get PTSD.”
Wenner sees the need for more press savvy among all generations. “Media literacy needs to be [addressed] in grade school,” he says. “Parents are supervising their children, and they know almost nothing about media. You spend more time with media than anything else.”
Ryan says that it’s not just study of journalism and the media that the world needs now: Studies of language, rhetoric and the humanities, he says, are the lodestones of a participatory democracy. “They’re like kryptonite for the nonsense that comes from demagogues of all stripes.”
Journalists need to be aware of their centrality. “It’s our time right now,” Costello says. “And I just hope we don’t mess it up.”
SIDEBAR: Social Truth
Nowhere does the ambiguity behind the state of the news become bolder than in social media. Facebook is the primary news source for 44 percent of Americans, and many come to articles — whether in The New York Times or fringe sites like InfoWars — from Twitter as well. About 40 percent of traffic to news sites derives from Google.
But unlike newspapers and magazines, social media sites do not edit or fact-check what they disseminate, so anything goes. When evidence broke that false information from Facebook’s News Feed and Trending Topics may have swung the 2016 election, founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote that “More than 99% of what people see is authentic.” But he later conceded the problem and inaugurated policies to punish errant sites by withholding ads (and ad dollars).
Facebook’s ethos comes from a Silicon Valley culture that extols enormous revenues, strict privacy about its own operations and an absolutist reading of free speech. But Facebook extols its role as a force for good and decency. How the social media giant coordinates all its ambitions in a world where the truth has become increasingly slippery remains hard to see.— S.T.
Scott Timberg is a freelance culture writer and author of “Culture Crash. The Killing of the Creative Class.” He was a Los Angeles Times staff writer for six years, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times and Los Angeles magazine. Timberg’s ArtsJournal blog is called Culture Crash. Follow him @TheMisreadCity.
This article appeared in the summer 2017 issue (Vol. 7, No. 2) of LMU Magazine.