Media

Truth, Lies and Democracy: Journalism in the Age of Trump

Safeguarding the truth has never in living memory been more difficult in the democratic world.

Truth, Lies and Democracy: Journalism in the Age of Trump

Donald Trump making headlines. (Photo by John Light)

She calls herself a humble scribbler, but when I read in a recent parody by Canadian journalist Olivia Ward about how Donald Trump reacted to allegations about “The Russian Connection” by ordering the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan to close down and how Kellyanne Conway had her children’s Russian wolfhound put down “in a very kind and humane way” to deflate any suspicion of links to Moscow, the humility seemed to me too… well, too modest. 

Then I read a speech Ms. Ward had given on journalism in the age of Trump, and realized what I had missed before coming upon her work this late in life. She worked for the Toronto Star for more than three decades, serving as a correspondent at the UN and in the Middle East, and as bureau chief in the former Soviet Union and Europe. Much of the time she spent covering wars, but she also managed to write a column for New Internationalist and to work on several documentaries. Now retired from the Star, she continues to collaborate on documentary films with Shelley Saywell and her Bishari company, and writes satirical blogs. With her permission I am pleased to print here the speech she recently delivered to the University of Toronto.

                                                                                                                    –Bill Moyers

 


 

In June 1972, a story about a gang of American burglars caught red-handed with their pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills made journalistic history.

These were no ordinary smash-and-grabbers. They were the Watergate burglars — five men in rubber gloves who bungled an attempt to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel and office complex. One claimed to have worked for the CIA.

When news of the Nixon administration’s campaign to destroy their opponents through not-too-well-organized crime broke in the Washington Post, a 26-month drama played out on the front page of a paper that riveted the capital’s and the English speaking world’s attention.

“No news story in my experience ever dominated conversation, newspapers, radio and TV broadcasts the way Watergate did,” former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee recalled. “People literally couldn’t wait for the radio and TV stations to read the next day’s Post stories on the 11 o’clock news.”

The Washington Post's Watergate anniversary coverage

The Washington Post’s Watergate anniversary coverage

Nixon’s downfall, spurred by the growing and widening Watergate scandal, made legends of investigative journalists and rocketed the profession into the career of choice for young aspiring reporters. Their dogged and relentless investigations made Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as famous as Nixon was infamous.

 
What would Watergate look like today?

That was nearly half a century ago, in what is now seen as a golden age of journalism. As the 45-year anniversary of Watergate approaches, let’s do a fast-forward to today, and stretch our imaginations about a Nixon scenario redux.

There would, of course, be no bungled break-ins, no clumsily bill-stuffed pockets, no Keystone Kops “gotcha” scene in Democratic headquarters at 2:30 a.m. Instead, Nixon could, perhaps, rely on hands across the water to cross the keyboard with kompromat, via computer — releasing compromising material against his opponents. He could go online himself with lies and smears against them, work with or inspire hate sites and racist, misogynist, Islamophobic trolls to create false news and threaten those who call out his attacks or support his foes, and dismiss any accusations of wrongdoing, corruption or racism as the work of a “lying, biased media.” He would condemn the investigation as that favorite tactic of the far right — fake news.

The Washington Post, of course, would be on overdrive with its fact-checking unit on fire — as would most progressive media. But they would be drowned in a sea of lies, distortions and legal and personal threats. Worse, they would be ignored by a large cohort of voters who get their news from aggregators like Facebook, spend their TV time in front of reality shows and avidly scan the bits and bytes of Twitter for news in less than 140 characters.

Richard Nixon at a press conference in 1974. (Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Oliver F. Atkins)

Richard Nixon at a press conference in 1974. (Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Oliver F. Atkins)

Even if some persistent investigative reporters came up with a smoking gun — say Nixon’s financial records, transcripts of his meetings with staff and supporters, a network of contacts with political saboteurs — in a virtual one-party system with an agenda to keep him in power, who would hold him to account?

In 2012, which now seems a relatively hopeful time, Woodward and Bernstein wrote a Watergate anniversary update on Nixon’s crimes, for which he was investigated by a Senate committee and special prosecutor, threatened with impeachment and pressured from office — a highly improbable scenario in today’s American political landscape.

Nixon, they reflected, “launched and managed wars against the media, the Democrats, the justice system, and finally against history itself.” All, they wrote, “reflected a mindset and pattern of behavior” that included “a willingness to disregard the law for political advantage and a quest for dirt and secrets about his opponents as an organizing principle of his presidency.”

 
Today’s media world – down the rabbit hole

Where have we heard this before? Unfortunately, it’s the world we now live in as journalists and citizens — a nightmare from which we are desperately seeking, like Alice down the rabbit hole, for an exit into the “real” world of truth and consequences, where rule of law is the rule and not the exception.

But in the past year of the American political campaign — and we should not delude ourselves — Canada, Britain and Europe — this is where we have found ourselves. It is indeed a dark place for us all, and for democracy itself. As self-appointed keepers of this flickering flame, journalists bear an acute responsibility.

In a speech immediately ridiculed by Donald Trump, actress Meryl Streep told the Golden Globe audience, “we need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution.” Ironically, she called for supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, whose main mission, until now, has been campaigning for those in the dungeons and torture chambers of authoritarian regimes. “We’re gonna need them going forward,” she said, “and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”

But therein lies the nut graph, as editors like to call the crucial piece of the story. Because safeguarding the truth has never in living memory been more difficult in the democratic world.

But therein lies the nut graph, as editors like to call the crucial piece of the story. Because safeguarding the truth has never in living memory been more difficult in the democratic world.

When the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) said “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” it seemed to be one of those self-evident truths.

That was the world of Watergate, of Nixon and the team that exposed him and ultimately saw him disqualified from office. The process was arduous but the formula was simple: Find the lies, bring them to light, let justice take its course. They are principles of journalism, but also of democracy.

In the age of Trump, those foundations have been kicked away. They consist of three pillars of a civil society: agreement on the facts, agreement that they need to be acted upon and a system that is willing to clear away the lies and the liars. With Trump barely in office, we have already seen those foundations crumble. Whether they will become broken remnants of the past is now in the balance.

 
Compass points of journalism: IF Stone and Martha Gellhorn

In this age of disorientation in which the democratically minded media now finds itself, it’s helpful to look at some compass points of journalism. Mine are the great investigative journalist I.F. Stone and the pioneering female war correspondent and human rights journalist Martha Gellhorn. There are many others, but these exemplify two different but necessary pillars of fact-based reporting.

For Stone, whom I was lucky enough to meet shortly before his death, it was a painstaking academic approach, his thick-spectacled eyes squinting over masses of documents and media reports that piled up in the office of his small but hugely influential weekly news sheet. He also rapped reporters who got their news from invitations to star-studded dinners with high officials and cozy presidential schmoozing as the price of courtier journalism. “Go into the bowels of government where the really good sources are,” he advised, meaning digging for data from lowly and disenchanted bureaucrats. “Good public servants,” he said, “are the best kind of source.”

While Izzy Stone covered the most important American political stories of the day from his desk in Washington, Martha Gellhorn followed her gut to farther fields for different kinds of facts on the ground.

Journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn (1908-98), wife of American writer Ernest Hemingway and the US war correspondent in Italy talks to Indian soldiers of the British Army on the 5th Army's Cassino front in 1944. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn (1908-98), wife of American writer Ernest Hemingway and the US war correspondent in Italy talks to Indian soldiers of the British Army on the 5th Army’s Cassino front in 1944. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Her credo was the journalism of witness, and ordinary people were her constant subjects. Through them she told the stories of great global tragedies, blunders and repressions of history — from the Spanish Civil War to America’s incursions in Central America, and the human catastrophe of World War II.

Observed reality was more important to her than established formulas of objectivity. “You go to a hospital and it’s full of wounded kids,” she said. “So you write what you see and how it is. You don’t say there’s 37 wounded children in this hospital but maybe there’s 38 wounded children on the other side. You write what you see.”

What she saw was shocking, powerful — and real. A chronicle of history. “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence,” she wrote after the liberation of Dachau, “the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see…if you are lucky.”

Both Gellhorn and Stone weathered lies as well as smears for their efforts. Holocaust deniers maintained that scenes like Gellhorn’s were “myths” made up by the Allies and Jews to persecute and blackmail Germany. Stone was accused of being a traitor and a Soviet spy.

 
The death of critical thinking?

But in spite of the lies that governments and their supporters have always aimed at individual journalists, they ultimately are not the existential threat that journalism faces today. When presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway said the administration was not lying, but had its own “alternative facts,” she had declared war not only on journalism but on critical thinking, without which fact and fiction are but a blur in cyberspace.

That threat has come from the denigration of critical thinking in a campaign aimed at overwhelming an often politically uneducated and confused public with misinformation, distortion and fake facts.

First, and most perplexing, is the vanishing of truth into a dizzying alternative reality where there are no facts, only opinions. So that if 10,000 astronomers maintain that the moon is made of rocks and extinct volcanoes, and 1 million twitterers say it’s made of green cheese, then green cheese is a fact — by popular demand.

If 10,000 astronomers maintain that the moon is made of rocks and extinct volcanoes, and 1 million twitterers say it’s made of green cheese, then green cheese is a fact — by popular demand.

H.L. Mencken, who, alas, had little regard for democracy, let alone populism, issued a chilling warning in 1920: “As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

 
The challenges of living in alternative reality

Bear in mind that the majority of Americans, in fact, did not elect Donald Trump. Only about 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. And of those, only 46 percent voted for Trump. Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote by about 3 million as a matter of record. And the latest Gallup numbers show he is the least popular president in modern American history, with only a 44 percent approval rating. A result Trump has condemned as “fake news.”

Trump’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge that Clinton won the popular vote is emblematic of the bubble of surreality in which he lives, as do his dedicated supporters — some suggest, puppeteers. It is a fact-free world in which the “media” is always wrong and his word is, well, His Word.

The creation of alternative reality is nothing new. It was a specialty of autocratic rulers, perfected by both Hitler and Stalin, and Stalin’s Soviet successors. Journalists were exiled, murdered, jailed and at best, censored. The same practices prevail today in countries like Iran and North Korea. Turkey is sweeping up vast numbers of suspected government opponents, and Egypt has arrested, jailed and threatened journalists with long prison terms or death sentences.

Leaders of those countries, to lesser and greater degrees, have made their own opinions government-endorsed facts. Any deviation could be fatal. Yet many of their people have simply adopted cynicism as a way of life. They have learned to live on two levels — what they see and know through their own skins, and what they must pay lip service to in public.

But in democratic countries, truth has taken a beating from within as well as from above. 9/11 helped to speed the process by flooding the media with paranoia over terrorism, eventually leading to the Iraq war and the horrors it has engendered. The revelations of lies exposed by the media followed an all-too-close embrace of those lies before the American invasion, coupled with intimidation of those who were not “with us” but “against us.” If you’re against us, journalists were told, you’re with the terrorists.

 
Inside the “bomb” factory

My own experience with those lies was particularly painful. On the day that a New York Times story naming supposed sites of weapons of mass destruction appeared in the New York Times, I was in Baghdad, and found myself transported to one of the very sites she had earmarked.

It was a sultry day, and inside a factory-like building was a scene out of Dante’s inferno. One of the lower circles of hell.

The temperature inside the building was searingly hot, with no fans or air conditioning. In it emaciated, sweating Iraqi workers were carrying pieces of metal up and down stairs to a blast furnace. Clearly frightened by the news of the WMD story, Iraqi officials allowed me and a handful of colleagues unprecedented access to the factory, the workers and anyone else we wished to interview.

The workers were puzzled by our arrival in what was demonstrably an agricultural machinery factory. “Did you know that people in the West think you are producing weapons of mass destruction?” I asked them. They laughed. “These are tractors,” said one, incredulously. When I pressed him about his reaction to being singled out by Washington he looked at me with resignation, a small stick figure against a landscape of flame. “What can I do?” he said. “I can’t stop working or my family will starve. If the Americans have made up their minds to kill me, they will kill me. That’s the way it is.”

It was only after the war began that the torture and humiliation of prisoners in Iraq, exposed by CBS News, began a cascade of ugly revelations: rendition of prisoners to countries where they were tortured, abuse and torture in Guantanamo Bay, wrongful arrests and trampling of human rights in the name of national security.

But even while appalling facts emerged from the misbegotten war the groundwork for doubt was sown.

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

— Donald Rumsfeld

The Bush administration attacked what it called the “reality-based community,” meaning journalists and all other critics — insisting that the US as a great empire could create its own realities, and the media should simply roll with them.

Faced with questions on what evidence he had for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously replied, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

That, at the time, was derided in the media as off-the-chart obfuscation. But it was a harbinger of things to come.

The Bush administration did not stop at an assault on evidence-based geopolitical facts. It waged war on the environment, fostered climate change denial, and linked arms with those who believe that the earth was created 10,000 years ago and evolution was just Darwin’s theory.

With the explosion of internet and social media use, misinformation and conspiracy theories came into their own. But it was not until the 2016 election, however, that they began to poison the well of public discourse — and speed the decline of trust in the so-called mainstream media.

 
Poisoning the well

In the early days of Watergate investigations, there was plenty of opposition to Woodward and Bernstein’s revelations, and they were swimming against the mainstream. They were forced to triple and quadruple their efforts to verify the material they found, fending off angry Nixon supporters as well as the backbiting of their own colleagues in rival media.

But once the dam of evidence against Nixon broke, they were part of a media floodtide. So much so that The Post was pushed aside for several well-earned Pulitzer prizes. Readers and viewers of the unfolding drama were fixated by it. Suddenly politics had become compulsive reading and viewing. Although Nixon managed to win a landslide victory in 1972, Democrats increased their majority in the Senate and maintained a comfortable lead in the House of Representatives. That, and the overwhelming public condemnation of Nixon’s illegal actions, allowed for a political consensus that he must go.

But this coming together of media and politically driven efforts was entirely absent in 2016, and to an even worse degree, today. When candidate Trump appeared on the scene, his campaign of confusion, misinformation and outright lies was aimed at dividing “ordinary people” from “elites” who were destroying America’s “greatness.” That he himself, as a self-described billionaire, was living a life that would have stunned the court of Louis the XVI of France was superseded by his assurance that only he could spread his own “greatness” around to the disgruntled and disenfranchised masses. Or at least, those of them who were white.

Coming in the wake of the populist Brexit campaign — which used similar tactics to convince British voters that Europe was the work of the devil, draining the country of jobs, its place in the world and national identity, the way was prepared for what became — for the mainstream media — the Trumpocalypse.

Sadly, the media were at first willing partners. That is partly because of the historic rivalry and profit seeking of corporate media, which over decades had come to dominate the mainstream. And partly because of perceived necessity — the traditional financial base had crumbled under the assault of the internet and digital media, leaving mainstream media scrambling for audiences and advertisers.

Not for the first time. In Canada up until the 1990s, for instance, there was an agonizing debate over cable TV and its fragmentation of the then “mainstream” TV audience, and its ability to swamp the screens with “American culture,” which could overwhelm and undermine Canada’s very identity.

 
Social media and “society”

How archaic that now sounds. In the 21st century, social media, seized upon as a positive development in many ways for the traditional media, was also a powerful rival, offering unfiltered content to billions of viewers at a price they couldn’t refuse — namely, free. Broadcasters and newspapers that spent vast sums on training and maintaining staff and deploying them to lengthy investigations as well as daily news were now seeing their material siphoned into the firehose of homogenized data delivered via Facebook, other internet sites and retweets, to name a few.

It was into this unsettling environment that Trump hurtled like an unguided missile. The very mention of his name was a media magnet, drawing the desperately sought eyeballs and “clicks” to their screens. It’s no wonder that the head of the CBS network, Leslie Moonves, chortled that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”

A Harvard study put it this way:

“Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational — the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.”

Once Trump was nominated — to the shock of many mainstream media — their journalists were at a loss. Accused at every turn of elitism, out-of-touchism and bias, they applied traditional values of political reporting. That is, the notion of balance, or so-called objectivity. Trump’s ability to ignore all the rules and blast out distortions and lies hit them like a knockout punch. That compelled them to normalize Trump’s outlandish claims by including them in daily news stories even while fact-checkers were panting to keep up with the multidirectional mud that was slung.

Trump’s ability to ignore all the rules and blast out distortions and lies hit them like a knockout punch. That compelled them to normalize Trump’s outlandish claims by including them in daily news stories even while fact-checkers were panting to keep up with the multidirectional mud that was slung.

Much of it was directed at Hillary Clinton, who for all her faults as a politician and campaigner, is the most investigated candidate ever to run for high office in the US. In spite of numerous exonerations, she was demonized through false equivalency as criminally corrupt and possibly treasonous for her use of personal emails for State Department business.

 
“Alt-right:” Swimming outside the mainstream

That was in the mainstream media. But it would be a mistake to credit or blame them for Trump’s ultimate triumph. He had at his back a newly empowered force — far-right hate and conspiracy sites that attracted a growing audience, even as the mainstream was discredited and undermined.

“Something was badly amiss in the (conservative) media ecosystem,” said Charles Sykes, a former right-wing radio talk show host who once helped to create it. “The cumulative effect of the attacks [on fact-based media] was to delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information.” He added, “All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.”

The “alt-right’s” greatest success story was of course Breitbart, a site that was obscure a couple of years ago, but is now steering and defending Trump’s presidency through its former leader, Steve Bannon. Breitbart proudly raised its flag over headlines such as “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy,” and “Young Muslims in the West are a ticking time bomb, increasingly sympathizing with radicals, terror.” The site is tailored to vent the anger of white Americans who feel betrayed and left behind by punitive trade deals, hollowed-out industries and “elites” who look down on them as mere steppingstones to power. Its comments are full of virulently racist, misogynist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic blurts.

Breitbart proudly raised its flag over headlines such as ‘Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy’ and ‘Young Muslims in the West are a ticking time bomb, increasingly sympathizing with radicals, terror.’

But Bannon, like Trump, is a self-created character whose own history wildly contradicts that of their target audience. A former Goldman Sachs marketeer and Hollywood producer, he fits perfectly the constructed reality of the Trump world.

The fact that both men’s backgrounds make no difference to their supporters is no accident.

The traditional and critical media they so fiercely oppose are at an added disadvantage — a new existential dilemma.

With the rise and dominance of social media, constructed reality is the new normal. While the battle cry of the late 20th century was “authenticity” in the presentation of self, many new generation users live by different imperatives. Truth becomes a hindrance when human relations are lived at a remove from reality.

 
Constructing the brand new you

Job seekers have always massaged their resumes to fit the prospective boss’ wish list. But now they must also create online social media personalities that will appeal to employers. They aren’t real personalities, but they are made to order to promote the job seeker as a product for sale. They are warned that staying off social media will make them unemployable — because employers would feel that they were hiding something, and are inherently untrustworthy.

While the battle cry of the late 20th century was ‘authenticity’ in the presentation of self, many new generation users live by different imperatives. Truth becomes a hindrance when human relations are lived at a remove from reality.

Perhaps the ultimate commodification is the online dating market, in which searchers market their dating profiles to win ratings from those on the receiving end, much as in reality TV. While some sincerely seek real-world relationships, growing numbers look for scores, creating fictionalized identities that cannot stand up to challenge. In this new postmodern paradigm, human relations are managed rather than experienced, friends are shadows in cyberspace, the unpredictability of life is feared and shunned, and contact with others kept at a safe distance, from where they can be either manipulated or exploited.

In this Brave New World, truth is irrelevant and performance is all. And Donald Trump is its ultimate emperor of illusion.

An early adapter to constructed personality, he first expanded his self-promotion campaign as a real estate mogul into a national phenomenon with publication of a ghost-written book The Art of the Deal. Horrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency, the author, Tony Schwartz, later admitted, “I put lipstick on a pig.” Describing Trump as a sociopath, he went on, much more dramatically: “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

Schwartz wasn’t the only one with buyer’s remorse. Timothy L. O’Brien, the author of the biography Trump Nation, says that NBC’s The Apprentice, produced by reality-TV powerhouse Mark Burnett, was based on an escalation of Trump’s constructed identity. “The Apprentice is mythmaking on steroids,” he told The New Yorker. “There’s a straight line from the book to the show to the 2016 campaign.”

 
The Russian revolution

And, he might have added, to the White House. Here we can also give a nod to Russia’s role, not only with widely attributed leaks of information to discredit Hillary Clinton, but also with a campaign of systematic disinformation that goes back decades to the Soviet Union, and has been weaponized by social media.

Back in the 1990s, I saw a primitive comic opera version of what the Western world has now learned to call kompromat. When I covered the first Chechen war, a colleague called me into his room in the guest house where we were staying. There, a very drunk and disheveled man was weeping while clutching a vodka bottle. The reason, he told us, was that he worked for the FSB, the KGB’s successor. And he was sent to the Caucasus to discredit the leader of Ingushetia, bordering on Chechnya.

Its president, his old friend and Soviet army colleague, had refused to join Russia’s war on the Chechen separatists. So he must be compromised as a terrorist and eliminated — a task that filled the agent with drink-addled despair. A few days later I was in the office of the leader in question, Gen. Ruslan Aushev, while a Russian TV broadcast declared his daughter was leading a Chechen terrorist cell. Aushev fell about laughing. “My daughter is pretty tough,” he chuckled. “But she is only 3.”

So much for old KGB tricks. Under Vladimir Putin, newer ones have been taught to the young dogs of cyberwar who work as trolls, spreading manufactured smears and lies on cue. In addition to time-honored political lies from the Kremlin, and a lockdown of the main Russian media, it has sponsored a “respectable” English-language network, RT, aimed at subverting the Western political conversation to Kremlin-tailored views. As Julia Ioffe put it in The Atlantic, Russia has “hacked not just the election, but even the terms of America’s political discourse.”

 
Playing propaganda ball

But Russia is far from the essential culprit. And the propaganda ball is now in the court of the American “alt-right.” They are so successful because we are now in an era where everyone can have their own “alternative facts” delivered to them by social media via robotized algorithms. They need never emerge from their self-affirming media silos into the chilling air of reality. The era of a nation waiting breathlessly for the next revelation of presidential wrongdoing from the mainstream media is definitively over. Or so it appears.

As George Orwell put it in his prophetic novel of totalitarianism, 1984, the Ministry of Truth has arrived:

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. For, after all, how do we know that 2 and 2 make 4? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?”

What indeed? When the very evidence of the external world is in doubt, when one’s own experience is downgraded to mere opinion, when darkness is eagerly embraced as light — what is to be done? The very rule of law, the principles of justice, are undermined.

What indeed? When the very evidence of the external world is in doubt, when one’s own experience is downgraded to mere opinion, when darkness is eagerly embraced as light — what is to be done? The very rule of law, the principles of justice, are undermined.

In the US the problem is especially acute, because constitutional checks and balances of power are vanishing in 2017. Congress is now essentially a one-party system largely controlled by the extreme right. Lower courts may try to block the president’s executive orders, but the highest court — the Supreme Court — will be a vehicle for the most extreme conservatives when his pick for a new justice is confirmed, to the predicted detriment of hard-won women’s rights, civil rights, worker’s rights, the environment and the struggle against unrestrained big money and dark money.

 
The role of the Fourth Estate

Yet in spite of this depressing scenario, the progressive media of every platform — the Fourth Estate — must push back, must reclaim their role, however flawed, as a moral compass in a time of lost bearings. Because there is simply no other choice.

There are encouraging signs. Trump’s version of America, and his vision of the world, is not in the majority. Doublethink has not yet taken over the US and its allies; witness the organized and focused protests that followed the inauguration and the chaos of the immigration bans.

Large segments of the public are mobilizing. So are major media. The New York Times and others have already beefed up their Washington bureaus and fact-checking units — well and good.

But as the public is increasingly engaged at the local level, the focus of the media should also widen. The lies from Washington should be only one part of the story, and the resistance in communities, city councils and state legislatures should get expanded play. It harks back to the old question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it…we know where that is going. Actions should be rewarded with attention.

The lies from Washington should be only one part of the story, and the resistance in communities, city councils and state legislatures should get expanded play.

And although this may be a hard sell, the focus must also be on education, especially after the confirmation of public education foe Betsy DeVos, which The New York Times said “teaches the value of ignorance.” What’s needed is reporting on the increasing erosion of public education, and its replacement by private interests that include religious fundamentalism. There should be emphasis on the urgent need for a core curriculum that fosters civic responsibility, and basic biological and environmental science. In other words, critical thinking that can equip young people to distinguish between fact and fiction.

In political reporting inside the Beltway, too, the media could take traditional and radical action. First, it could return, as I believe it is doing, to the example of I.F. Stone — sniff out stories in the basements and backrooms of power; collect every document, every record that comes out of the White House and Congress; and make frequent use of Freedom of Information Act requests.

They must be aware, too, that shiny objects are scattered in their path as distractions: Trump’s hourly outpouring of bizarre tweets. But they must sift through them and single out only the ones that have serious implications for the country, the world and democracy.

(Photo by dcJohn/ flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo by dcJohn/ flickr CC 2.0)

In covering the White House, more radical action may be required. Reporters could set aside journalistic rivalries and come together in a consensus that they are all seeking the truth. That they will be more than stenographers for the administration.

How to do that? First, by deciding on a daily agenda. What are the most important questions that need answering? Who is going to take the lead, and who will follow? This is not collusion; it is the essential mission of journalism. To seek answers to questions in the public interest. When propagandists are dispatched to use news organizations to spread misinformation and toxic lies, they will not be able to shut down one question by one reporter. Another will follow. And another. And another. All asking the question coolly and professionally. This will wear down the spin doctors and show them there is a price to pay.

It would also remove news organizations’ fear of being barred from official press conferences. If one news organization is barred, the rest should stand up and leave, because they will surely be next. If the administration wants to shut down the entire press gallery, so be it. It would be a worldwide demonstration that the US, which prides itself on freedom of speech, has moved one large step down the road to autocracy.

 
In search of a media summit

An American friend, a doggedly determined investigative journalist, says this is all well and good, but what about those silos, those echo chambers that so many people are now locked inside? “You can take a horse to water,” he said, “but you can’t make it drink.” Or for that matter, think outside the boxes constructed by the new imperatives of the internet.

So finally, I would suggest that the heads of major American media could take advantage of the unease felt by at least 100 heads of Silicon Valley enterprises, including the largest, who recently sent letters of protest and even filed an amicus brief opposing Trump’s immigration policy. They have been shaken by the effects of their news bundling in promoting the very views that are now antithetical to them.

Solutions might begin from a summit meeting of fact-based media, both progressive and conservative, with those new media moguls. This is not to restrict freedom of information, but to find tools to identify information that is demonstrably false. That process has, in fact, already begun. Such a meeting could also look at ways of widening the so-called news silos to include a mixture of reasoned views as well as a spectrum of daily news reporting and investigations. In other words, to create a civic dialogue rather than a cyber screaming match.

Those of us who have seen simmering resentments fanned into flames of hatred and violence in war and ethnic cleansing know that lies do more than debase political debate. Lies are the termites in the house of democracy.

None of this will happen overnight. But time may be shorter than we think, if we look back at history and even at daily events. Those of us who have seen simmering resentments fanned into flames of hatred and violence in war and ethnic cleansing know that lies do more than debase political debate. Lies are the termites in the house of democracy.

 
Just say “no” to normalization

For the media, above all, there must be no normalization of the Trump administration’s lies, no co-opting of journalism and no surrender to despair or intellectual exhaustion. And there should be no more agonizing over whether a lie is a mistruth, an untruth, a fib, a misstatement or a falsehood. Or maybe just an unknown unknown?

This is a US presidency like no other in living memory. In a democracy, it is not normal to say, without shame or remorse, that war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. It is not normal to denounce evidence-based fact as fake news. It is not normal to concoct toxic lies that can have power over the lives of millions of people. We have been down that road before. We know it ends badly.

As Martha Gellhorn replied, when asked why she put herself so often at risk to cover dangerous conflicts, “It seemed to me personally that it was my job to get things on the record, in the hopes that at some point or other, somebody couldn’t absolutely lie about it.”

Olivia Ward

Olivia Ward is a former foreign affairs writer for the Toronto Star. She has written about international affairs for more than 16 years, beginning as the UN correspondent, and led the Star's Moscow and London bureaus and has reported from the former Soviet Union, South Asia and the Middle East, and on conflict zones including Chechnya, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Kosovo, Serbia, Iraq, and Israel and Palestine. Her work has been the subject of documentaries including A Child’s Century of War, the Emmy-winning The Selling of Innocents and Devil’s Bargain. She is the winner of a National Newspaper Award. Now retired from the Star, she continues to collaborate on documentary films with Shelley Saywell and her Bishari company, and writes satirical blogs. Follow her on Twitter: @wardolivia.