The Pretense of Objectivity
The ideology of news makes two moral claims: that it is complete, and that it is objective. News, in other words, provides consumers with just the right amount of information necessary to function as citizens, and it does so from an Olympian perspective, devoid of political bias or special pleading. Neither claim is empirically grounded. Both rest on the special place given to “the press” in a democratic system.
In the 2016 presidential campaign that culminated with the election of Donald Trump, that special place was surrendered and the two claims were falsified, beyond doubt and possibly beyond repair.
Self-evidently, the content of news is arbitrary and trivial rather than complete. News is whatever gets produced by the news business. The blind spots cover far more territory than the field of vision. The focus is fuzzy and easily distracted. In 2003, as US forces fought their way to Baghdad, the New York Times was publishing an extensive series of front-page articles about a Georgia country club that refused to admit women. So that was news. CNN, in turn, has dedicated hours of air time to the likes of Michael Jackson and the “runaway bride.” That became news, too.
The claim of objectivity is just as unrealistic and more dangerous, because it leads into a labyrinth of self-righteousness. No one today believes in the objectivity of the news. The typical complaint is about political bias, and the prevalent charge is that the news favors liberal causes. That is probably correct. For reasons that can be glossed over here, the news tilts left – but by no means is that the most damaging distortion of content.
Far more consequential, in terms of failed objectivity, is the journalistic tone of moral contempt for politicians, officeholders, and the democratic process in general. News is a rhetorical style, a form of persuasion: and the rhetoric of political coverage pours out toxic levels of cynicism and distrust. People in politics are assumed to be liars and cheats. As long ago as 1992, when Thomas Patterson asked “several of the nation’s top journalists” why they chose to portray the presidential candidates as liars, the usual response was “Because they are liars.” Candidates are depicted as making promises they never intend to keep. They say things that are incredibly ignorant or insensitive – often self-detonating by means of the dreaded “gaffe.” Elections are decided by money rather than a gullible electorate, in any case. Elected officials, the wise consumer of news must conclude, are pawns to powerful but unaccountable interests.
The effect of all this is to create an immense moral distance between those who cover politics and those who practice it. Reporting on politics is like reporting on organized crime. The journalist’s duty is less to convey the words or deeds of the players than to lay bare the hidden horrors of the system. For many years, this rhetoric of cynicism was churned out behind the veil of objectivity. With the nomination of Donald Trump, it came triumphantly out of the closet and became a legitimate form of discourse.
The Wages of Distrust
Trump was seen as a candidate of a very different kind. Structurally speaking, he came from nowhere. His background and behavior were unacceptable. He said things that should not be said, and said them in ways news producers found offensive. The claim of objectivity turned into an obstacle to the exposure of Trump. In effect, it was abandoned.
Here is a front-page headline in the New York Times (August 7): “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.” The article itself seemed to argue that a higher duty made the norms invalid. “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, your reporting is going to reflect that,” it stated. NYT’s political editor was quoted rattling off a list of Trump offenses and adding: “that demands coverage – copious coverage and aggressive coverage.” CNN went back to the word “dangerous” to characterize statements by Trump to the effect that the election was rigged against him.
Examples of news people lining up in opposition to Donald Trump can be multiplied at will – and it wasn’t just a question of open criticism. Well-known journalists in both print and broadcast media colluded with the Clinton campaign to maximize the chances of Trump’s defeat, as was revealed in a hack of the campaign manager’s emails. Indeed, the most damaging personal revelations against Trump weren’t dug up by Democratic Party operatives, but leaked by NBC News to the Washington Post.
Cynicism and contempt had pervaded political coverage before Trump. The final step into the labyrinth – abandoning even the pretense of objectivity – was, in truth, a small one. No doubt people in the news business believed that they had aligned with justice and righteousness, to stop a dangerous man. They certainly thought their side couldn’t lose. That the news media was now part of an elite-driven “institutional front” against the vulgarian Trump passed unnoticed by those involved. Yet that was exactly how a significant portion of the public perceived the affair.
The public has inherited the rhetoric of distrust and disdain from the news – but with a difference. It’s now aimed at every center of authority, very much including the news business itself. From the moment it acquired a voice, the public displayed a radical suspicion of “mainstream media.” Early bloggers engineered Dan Rather’s resignation from “60 Minutes” and CBS News, for example. Trust in news at the start of the 2016 elections stood at 19 percent, a record low. The two political parties, though in shambles, had better numbers.
The anti-Trump fervor of the news media merely replicated, to an extreme degree, the cynicism and moral superiority that had alienated the public in the first place. An interesting question is whether it achieved the opposite of what was intended: whether it helped rather than hindered Trump’s election. Trump had the luxury of campaigning against unpopular media elites. He got to cash in on the massive levels of distrust in news as an institution. The result was described by one source as a “neutering of mainstream media,” while another observer judged that the media “played a crucial part in Trump’s election by bashing him.”
Measuring information effects is tricky business. What we know with certainty is that the 2016 elections involved the wreckage of many venerable political institutions, victimized by a public in revolt – and that none was more broken in credibility and legitimacy and morale than the news.
The “Fake News” Delusion
The election of Donald Trump can be said to have demolished the ideological foundations of the news business. The claim of objectivity had been abandoned for a higher cause. The claim of completeness was now shattered by the failure to grasp the shape and outcome of the contest. No one who followed the news understood the forces at play. None guessed what was coming. Continued consumption of news seemed to lack any justification, other than amusement or habit.
Dazed and demoralized, media figures sought haphazardly to explain the disaster. They were not good at the game: a profession that is literally in broadcast mode shouldn’t be expected to excel at self-scrutiny. Some wished to reclaim the mantle of completeness by launching expeditions to that dark continent, Trump Land. “As The Times begins a period of self-reflection, I hope its editors will think hard about the half of America it seldom covers,” wrote the NYT’s “public editor” on the morning after. Others like Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor and unabashed Clinton promoter, complained angrily that the escape from objectivity hadn’t traveled far enough. “I blame my profession for failing to inform the public it serves,” tweeted Jarvis, equating disagreement with ignorance and information with the defeat of the detestable Trump.
The self-critical mood didn’t last. Eight days after the elections, BuzzFeed posted a long, sloppy analysis piece that made the following assertion: “In the final three months of the US presidential election, the top-performing fake news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets.” Of the top 20 fake news stories, 17 were said to have favored Trump or attacked Clinton. Four days later, the NYT picked up on the subject. There followed an extraordinary flowering of media exposés about fake news, most of them suggesting that fakery had helped Trump win the election. This was capped by a Washington Post article purporting to have uncovered “sophisticated Russian propaganda” that spread fake news during the elections to attack Clinton, help Trump, and undermine “faith in American democracy.”
If fake news deluded the masses into electing Donald Trump, and sophisticated Russians were responsible for the fake news, then an explanation for 2016 had been found that absolved the news media: a way out of the labyrinth. But such things never happened. To anyone who follows information effects, fake news is a sideshow, a byproduct of our chaotic information landscape. Its impact, while difficult to measure, probably comes close to zero.
With regard to fake news, I can sum up what is relevant to my theme by answering two simple questions: Why? and So what?
The why question gets at causation. Fake news can exist only because of the failure of traditional news to retain the trust of the public. It is an effect, not the cause, of that loss of trust. The cynicism with which the news regards the political world, voters included, has been turned against the news. People “like” a story from an unknown website about Pope Francis endorsing Trump because, to those people, all producers of information appear equally corrupt. In this crucible of distrust, the term “news” as a category of information – never crisply defined – now sounds strangely old-fashioned. Where all sources are equally tainted, everything is news and nothing is.
The so what concerns the impact of fake news. For all the frenzied discussion of the subject, no effort has been made to measure that impact. There have been no studies linking fake news to voter opinion or behavior in 2016. For reasons both substantive and methodological, I doubt that connection will ever be made. The relationship between information and human behavior is exceedingly complex – but we seldom change our core beliefs because of a story we read online. That’s so whether the story is true or false: on the question of influence, too, the distinction between fake and real news tends to disappear. Though much criticized for allowing lies to spread on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg had the weight of evidence on his side when he stated: “Voters make decisions based on lived experience.”
The Thermidorian Reaction of the Institutions
The subject of lies on the web is a touchy one for the news media, which purports, as a corollary to its moral claims, to interpose many fact-checkers and layers of review between the journalist and the public. Against this self-description, the web comes off as the mother of all lies. Anyone can say anything and publish it. No penalties are incurred for peddling falsehoods, even intentional ones.
That’s the media portrait of its destroyer. A different sense of the matter has been advanced by Andrey Miroshnichenko. For the latter, a “Viral Editor” is eternally at work on the web: a “distributed being of the internet,” composed of every user, who performs many of the same functions of fact-checking and review claimed by the media. The digital universe, Miroshnichenko holds, is not indifferent between truth and falsehood.
If a lie is significant, it will circulate until it reaches witnesses and experts who will denounce it, because they know the truth. If a lie is insignificant, no one will denounce it; but it won’t circulate.
Every example of a lie on the Internet, actually, is an example of disclosure of this lie.
That is the strong version of a thesis I believe to be generally valid. If fake news were a salient part of the 2016 elections, they would have been exposed and exploded. If they weren’t exposed, it was because they never crossed the public’s awareness threshold. Politically, they did not matter. It was only after the fact, and out of the trauma of a shattering repudiation, that the news media tried to explain its failures by positing a parallel universe of counterfeit news and Russian manipulation.
Escape into delusion is not a good portent. With Donald Trump now president-elect, the public has triumphed, but the institutions remain unreconciled – and news people appear eager to lead the reaction. A prominent journalist called the election outcome an “existential crisis” for her profession. The implication is that it must be reversed. A Trump administration must either be co-opted or destroyed if the news media, as an independent force, is to survive. From the ranks of “not my president” street events in New York, Jeff Jarvis would passionately agree.
Yet the dream of Thermidorian reaction is another delusion. The attempt would end in fratricidal mayhem, with the institutions of American democracy devouring one another. If, as so many news types insist, Trump is at heart a dangerous authoritarian, then the media’s assault on the democratic process – its vociferous embrace of all-or-nothing politics – will serve the next president well.