Former CBS news correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, author of The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think and How You Vote, at the National Press Club Headliners Book Event in Washington, D.C., on August 31, 2017. Cheriss May/ Press Association. All rights reserved.
Journalists naturally resent Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on their profession, and they blame him for undermining public trust in the press. Their credibility, however, had actually eroded away well before Trump announced his run for president. According to the Gallup Poll, only 32 percent of Americans in 2016 had confidence in the media. That was down from a high of 72 percent in 1976, after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein blew open the Watergate story.
Among millennials (18-to-29-year-olds), just 11 percent trust the media. Trump did not cause this distrust, but he certainly benefitted from it. At the start of his presidential campaign, a Rasmussen poll found that 47 percent of likely American voters thought the media was biased against him, whereas just 23 percent thought it was slanted against Hillary Clinton, and fully 71 percent said that reporters abandoned objectivity to help candidates they personally favored. So it didn’t matter what the papers said about Trump, because audiences no longer trusted them. So it didn’t matter what the papers said about Trump, because audiences no longer trusted them.
And not just in the United States. In Britain, back in 1975, only about a third of tabloid readers and just 3 percent of readers of “quality” broadsheets felt that their paper “often gets its facts wrong.” But by 2012 no UK daily was trusted by a majority of the public “to report fairly and accurately.” In something of a contradiction, the Sun enjoyed both the largest circulation and the lowest level of trust (just 9 percent). But even the quality papers, with much smaller readerships, did not enjoy much confidence, ranging from 37 percent for the Times to 48 percent for the Financial Times. In 2014 just 22 percent of the British public trusted journalists to tell the truth, ranking them lower than bankers (31 percent).
According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, this suspicion is global in scope and to some extent class-based. Those who have university degrees and upper-bracket incomes tend to place more trust in established institutions (including the media) than the rest of the world’s population. Worldwide, just 43 percent of people trust the media, down from 48 percent a year earlier. In the United States only 47 percent have confidence in the media, compared to a dismal 32 percent in Murdoch-dominated Australia and Britain. Remarkably, there is no positive correlation between democracy and public confidence in the media, which is often greatest in authoritarian societies like China (65 percent) and Singapore (54 percent).
The disappearance of independent family-owned newspapers, and the increasing concentration of surviving media outlets in the hands of a few very large conglomerates only feeds this skepticism. Growing numbers of readers, especially younger readers, simply see no point in following newspapers and magazines at all. In 1970, 73 percent of American 18-to-24-year-olds and 77 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds regularly read newspapers; by 2007 both figures had collapsed to 34 percent.
They may have good reason to distrust the papers. Not long ago the Guardian published a report on an interview with Julian Assange which, as Glenn Greenwald noted, “recklessly attributed to Assange comments that he did not make . . . Those false claims –fabrications, really – were spread all over the internet by journalists, causing hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) to consume false news . . . Those who most flamboyantly denounce Fake News, and want Facebook and other tech giants to suppress content in the name of combating it, are often the most aggressive and self-serving perpetrators of it.”
Who checks the checkers?
So where can we find the truth? We are often told to rely on “fact-checkers”, but they are fallible human beings with their own biases, blind spots, and conflicts of interest. To illustrate, last September Bernie Sanders said, “There is no moral or economic justification for the six wealthiest people in the world having as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, 3.7 billion people.” His numbers were substantially correct: Oxfam calculated that the six richest individuals (starting with Bill Gates) owned a total of $462.6 billion, compared with $409 billion for the poorest 50 percent. A “fact-checker” at the Washington Post tried to dispute that, but only by using some highly creative accounting techniques. The Washington Post, by the way, is owned by Jeff Besos, the second richest man in the world. So we always have to ask: Who checks the checkers?
No doubt scurrilous websites are a real problem, but we have always had “fake news” and justifiably dubious readers. The first English newspaper was launched in 1621, and just four years later Ben Jonson staged the first dramatic satire of journalism, The Staple of News. Like any Marxist media critic today, Jonson recognized that news was a business (“staple” meant “commodity”) and printers would print anything that sold papers: “a weekly cheat to draw money . . . wherein the age may see her own folly, or hunger and thirst after published pamphlets of news, set out every Saturday, but made all at home, and no syllable of truth in them.” He correctly anticipated that readers would demand something like People magazine, trivial gossip about who was wearing what and having affairs with whom and which bodies were hot.Top of Form And in fact early newspapers did publish gossip about royals and aristocrats, though as one journalist complained, “Such bagatelles . . . serve for nothing but for making everyone laugh who reads them.” We see the same law of journalism at work today, when gossip magazines are booming, news magazines are going out of business, and nobody believes any of it. We see the same law of journalism at work today, when gossip magazines are booming, news magazines are going out of business, and nobody believes any of it.
Today in the United States there is only one working journalist (who reports the news) for every four public relations agents (who try to manipulate the news). And the ratio is growing ever worse, as news outlets lay off more and more of their investigative staff. The overworked survivors are often only too happy to reproduce uncritically press releases that are handed to them, a process reflected in two versions of a classic journalism joke, eighty years apart. The first is a memorable scene in the 1931 film The Front Page. A fast-breaking story at City Hall propels a half-dozen reporters to a half-dozen telephones, and they call in a half-dozen versions of the story, no two of which bear much resemblance to each other. But today late-night television comedians run rapid-fire series of clips of TV anchors reporting the same event, all of them following exactly the same press releases, using the same clichés and buzzwords. A 2006 survey of Britain’s “quality” papers found that more than half the news in the Guardian and about two-thirds of the Times and Daily Telegraph exactly or mostly reproduced pre-packaged stories from PR agents or news agencies. That’s why younger audiences today call reporters “stenographers.”
Paid to lie
And what they create in their stories, writes publicist Ryan Holiday, is “A netherworld between the fake and the real where each builds on the other and they cannot be told apart. This is what happens when the dominant cultural medium…is so easily corrupted by people like me.” In his revealing book Trust Me, I’m Lying, Holiday describes himself as:
“to put it bluntly, a media manipulator—I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you . . . I have funneled millions of dollars to blogs through advertising….I have flown bloggers across the country, boosted their revenue by buying traffic, written their stories for them, fabricated elaborate ruses to capture their attention, and courted them with expensive meals and scoops.. . . I used blogs to control the news.”
Journalists often cite “experts” as authorities, but many “experts” are willing (for the sake of self-publicity) to provide a quotation validating whatever point the journalist wants to make. There is even a widely used service, Help a Reporter Out, which links reporters with self-described “experts.” Holiday admits “I’ve used it myself to con reporters from ABC News to Reuters to the Today Show, and yes, even the vaunted New York Times.” Holiday frankly concludes that journalism today is a “racket”:
“Its very business model rests on exploiting the difference between perception and reality—pretending that it produces the “quality” news we once classified as journalism without adhering to any of the standards or practices that define it….But of course, no one can admit any of this without the whole system collapsing.”
Far from shocking readers, Trust Me, I’m Lying got Holiday “more requests from potential new clients than I knew what to do with”—evidently his ability to game the system impressed them. No one has added up all the people now working in PR, advertising, marketing, politics, and the law, but it’s clear that we now have a vast professional class devoted to manipulating customers, voters, juries, and readers. For them, truth is an irrelevant annoyance, but they are keenly interested in new and more effective methods of spin.
Speaking power to truth
When she worked for CBS News, Sharyl Attkisson racked up a host of awards for her hard-hitting investigative reporting. Her bosses rewarded her by spiking her stories and cutting back her air time. Investigative journalism is expensive and liable to offend advertisers, so in recent years it has been drastically scaled back by editors. (In 2013 just 33.6 percent of US journalists felt free to pursue any stories they wished, down from 60 percent in 1982.) Although she is sometimes labeled a conservative, on this issue Attkisson finds herself agreeing with Noam Chomsky on the far left: “Commercial news organizations disseminate propaganda on behalf of dominant private interests and the government.” On social issues there may be liberal media bias, but “there’s also a competing conservative, corporate bias that favors specific companies, industries, and paid interests.” In her recent (and shocking) book The Smear, Attkisson shows that the mass media is no longer a free marketplace of ideas, but quite the opposite, where the very wealthy, corporations, and bureaucracies can shut down debate, speaking power to truth. Big business and powerful politicians have developed a new weapon, so-called “media watchdogs”, to act as their journalistic hitmen. The best-known is Media Matters for America, lavishly funded by Hillary Clinton’s donors, whose prime mission is to attack nosy reporters who embarrass the Clintons.
But all mainstream political parties on both sides of the Atlantic have similar operations. In December 2005 UK journalist Neil Clark published a negative review of a book supporting the Iraq War in the Daily Telegraph. The very next day he faced a blizzard of anonymous personal attacks that continued for years. He was labeled a “plagiarist” and a “fraud” on social media and in letters to editors he worked for. On Twitter lefties were told that he was anti-immigrant and an “obscure right-wing blogger”, while Tories were warned that he was a communist. (He is in fact a man of the moderate left.) More than a hundred defamatory comments were inserted into his Wikipedia entry, including the allegation that he was a “Srebrenica denier/genocide denier”. Trolls materialized everywhere, attacking him and his books. They even went after his wife, also an author. Their objective was to destroy his career and drive him out of mainstream journalism, and in that they largely succeeded. On Twitter lefties were told that he was anti-immigrant and an “obscure right-wing blogger”, while Tories were warned that he was a communist. (He is in fact a man of the moderate left.)
The New McCarthyism?
Clark calls it “the New McCarthyism”. But where the old McCarthyism focused on Communists (real or imagined), these postmodern witchhunts can gun down dissenters of all types, pretty much anyone who challenges powerful vested interests. And compared with 1950s McCarthyism, twenty-first century McCarthyism enjoys more solid support in the media and the political establishment, is far better funded, and employs vastly more sophisticated techniques of mass manipulation.
A Media Matters staffer once bragged that a thousand emails from nowhere (which can easily be generated by a couple of digital drones using hundreds of aliases) may be enough to unnerve a reporter. If sterner measures are necessary, smear artists undermine journalists by going over their heads and contacting anchors, editors, executives at the head office, and of course the advertising department: usually, someone in the chain of command cracks.
Screenshot. Trailer. Youtube.Soon journalists (if they can still be called that) learned that their jobs would be so much easier if they serviced not just the Clintons, but any of the agencies, politicians, and corporations they were supposed to be covering. In 2012 AP reporter Ken Delanian ran several drafts of an article on drone strikes past the CIA, promising to make it “reassuring to the public” and striving “to make sure you wouldn’t push back against any of it.” Sharyl Attkisson is incredulous: “Can you imagine Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein running their unpublished Watergate stories past the Nixon White House?”
“Can you imagine Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein running their unpublished Watergate stories past the Nixon White House?”
Having exhausted every other alternative, today’s readers simply have to find the truth themselves. In sixteenth-century Cologne a burger named Herman Weinsberg, who had nothing much to do other than live off his rents, spent his days investigating the news
and recording it in a revealing diary. He spoke with friends, bought pamphlets, and when possible questioned eyewitnesses, but often these sources were irreconcilably conflicted: “Each person cannot truly say and know more than what he had seen at the place where he was at that hour. But if he heard about it from others, the story may be faulty; he cannot truly know it.” Five hundred years later, we find ourselves in the same fog. I recently questioned a class of honors students at my university, and found that none of them regularly reads a paper-and-ink newspaper. Instead, they surf the web, they collate and compare accounts from various sources, and thus they try to figure out what the hell is going on. They surf the web, they collate and compare accounts from various sources, and thus they try to figure out what the hell is going on.
And that offers an opening to “citizen journalists”. Readers are increasingly turning to independent websites (this one, for instance) for perspectives on stories that mainstream sources are misreporting, inadequately reporting, or not reporting at all.
Because the American media (heavily dependent on pharmaceutical advertising) was slow to recognize the wave of opioid addiction sweeping across the country, parents of addicts had to exchange notes through their own web networks. The scandal of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries was finally exposed though similar channels. And while officialdom continues to downplay the autism epidemic (often denying that it is an epidemic), community web newsletters like Age of Autism (for which I occasionally write) report the growing list of casualties. That may be the best answer to fake news: Do it yourself.
This article is adapted from Jonathan Rose’s new book, Readers’ Liberation, just published by Oxford University Press. Rose is the William R. Kenan Professor of History at Drew University.