Where I live, it’s common to hear people say that the US government destroyed the World Trade Center. What looks to me and my reporter colleagues like a Russian invasion of the Ukraine looks to them like a murky situation where no one is right or wrong. But when someone said to me over dinner that a Polish fighter plane had shot down MH17 over Ukraine, citing yet another obscure Internet “news” site, something snapped. I turned away, but the problem is still there.
For about a decade I have been studying the rise of media that are owned by stakeholder groups - people with an axe to grind. They may be militant ecologists or other NGOs, investors, product users, or anyone else who worries about the unkept promises of the people who run organisations. To me, they’re proof that individuals still have power, and that the ‘hegemony’ of the mass media is a hollow myth. They’ve demonstrated more than once that communities can influence, stop, or even destroy powerful entities by reaching out to others through their media.
I know one reason why this is happening: a great number of people no longer believe that the mainstream media (MSM) are telling their stories. They believe, instead, that the MSM are telling the stories that ruling elites want them to tell, and no others. In other words, we are less and less credible.
But the events of this past summer - in particular, the escalation of Russian aggression in the Ukraine, and the emergence of ISIS as a power in Syria and Iraq - have brought home to me the unwelcome fact that the crisis of credibility in the MSM is far deeper than I ever imagined. In both these cases, a vast network of puppet stakeholder media has been deployed to present coherent but partial truths that serve murderous interests. And in both cases, these networks have found attentive and accepting audiences, not only in their home jurisdictions, but worldwide, including Europe and the US. We are in a new age of disinformation, and it builds on the belief that journalists are hired liars.
Of course this is not entirely new, just much more acute than before. (To see just how acute, click here.) Of course the causes are complex, multiple. But surely this is also the price we - we journalists, and anyone who needs the knowledge we provide - are paying for the submission of the MSM to the tenets and tactics of the war on terror that began in 2001.
To this day, the failure of the American news industry to expose the Bush administration’s WMD myths before the invasion of Iraq is thrown in our faces (in my case, the last time was early August, when a French reporter interviewed me about Watergate). The single greatest achievement of the news industry during the war on terror was not due to the industry’s initiative; it came about because Wikileaks obtained and shared crucial information. Wikileaks is still alive, but not thanks to the news industry.
Are reporters mere adjuncts of power and spies? That is how ISIS treated the martyred journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. That is what people ask me, sometimes very directly indeed, when we discuss Ukraine or 9/11, and I tell them what I’ve learned from journalists I trust. In fact, they are not asking. They are telling me that they do not believe us, on principle, when we say that we are only and always seeking the truth. Whose? For whose benefit?
Investigative journalism is part of the solution to the crisis of credibility. In the future there will surely remain, in every jurisdiction, one or two media whose role is to publish the facts on which everyone of good sense and good will can agree. Key sectors of our societies desperately need those facts (the global success of investigative business reporting is the avatar of this trend). Investigation is one good and sustainable way to provide them.
But investigative work alone is not going to make the crisis go away. For a start, we need allies outside the MSM, in particular to distribute our work. That is one implication of the disinformation war being waged on Ukraine’s borders. Credibility is now also vested in networks that gather, archive and diffuse coherent stories, with each node in the network supporting and legitimizing the others. The credibility of MSM is eroding because they have still not grasped that principle. They still see themselves as the most authoritative, if not the only game in town. But their authority was based on exclusivity as much as on the “strategic ritual” of objectivity (in Gaye Tuchman’s famous phrase), and the exclusivity was based on the control of printing presses and broadcast networks.
Stakeholder media (SHM) live in another world, and not just because they’re online. They operate on the idea that truth lives in a community - not just a given market, as for MSM, but a gathering of those who share a specific common agenda. SHM also presume that the purpose of the truth is to defend the community - to help it thrive, and to realize its objectives. Greenpeace.org makes no apologies for its vision of how to save the planet, and its first audience is the membership community, three million strong, that funds its activism.
We must learn from such media, not just denounce them as unfair or inept competition. Fair or not, they are indeed the competition, and they are gaining ground. Just ask Ukraine. Or ask your dinner partner where she gets the news, and why she believes it.