After the Apocalypse: Trying to Describe Reality in Unreal Times
Since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I’ve seen several photos of chalkboards in front of bookstores, reading something along the lines of, “Dystopian Fiction Has Now Been Moved to Current Events.”
It’s a good joke, and one that gets a lot of clicks and reposts on Facebook and Twitter. For a journalist, it also underscores the struggles of accurately describing current events when they do feel impossible, unreal, dystopian.
This election in particular was marked by debates about media, its biases and “fake”-ness, and even allegations of foreign propaganda. From the primaries to the cabinet selections, debates over the appropriate amount and tone of coverage raged and rage on.
The rise of “fake news” has led many to return to the idea of objectivity, blaming partisanship rather than sloppiness (or malice) for the spread of disinformation. Yet it has seemed many times since Trump’s election that the norms and practices of objective media are uniquely unsuited to covering the news in unreal times.
As Trump appoints a white nationalist Breitbart executive to run his team, puts a fast-food baron opposed to the minimum wage in charge of the Labor Department, and hands former Texas Gov. Rick Perry control over the department that he famously couldn’t remember he wanted to eliminate, it can be easy to believe more and more unbelievable things. Maintaining some ability to discern reality amidst all of this is both crucial and increasingly difficult.
The partisan press has a long history in the United States—in fact, much longer than what we think of as the “objective” media. Its rise once again, as the institutions of the objective press break down, is not particularly surprising, but the internet—particularly social media—seem to have created a perfect storm of incentives for websites to stretch, distort or plain make up stories in order to gain clicks by telling people what they want to hear.
The shift from “clickbait”—the use of a headline that is deliberately phrased to be dramatic, inflammatory or otherwise compelling to maximize the likelihood that people will click—to actual fabrication is hard to pinpoint. As advertising dollars shifted away from journalism and diffused across the internet, the news media’s revenue sources collapsed, with leading websites and even legacy news organizations coming to rely less on expensive and time-consuming original reporting. Instead, they hired a stable of bloggers and freelancers to aggregate, comment upon and argue over the news of the day. There are fewer factcheckers, and more people whose job it is to come up with the most clickable headline, in order to maximize eyeballs for advertisers.
That’s not to imply that bloggers cannot and have not done excellent original reporting, many times outpacing the corporate media. That work, in fact, has further undermined the credibility of the so-called “mainstream” media, a term used as an epithet equally by those on the political right and left. As traditional outlets scramble to hold on to a collapsing center, partisan websites spring up all around to fill in the gaps.
Independent journalists trying their best to describe reality from a particular point of view is all to the good. But the ebbing of the traditional journalistic model has also opened space for what’s come to be termed “fake news,” especially in relation to the 2016 election cycle. Taking advantage of Facebook in particular, which presents all news stories in a similar format and deemphasizes the name of the outlet or blog, a variety of less-than-scrupulous actors have flooded the scene.
They range from well-meaning and dedicated partisans out to “correct” the coverage of their preferred candidates, but doing so with rumor, exaggeration and wishful thinking rather than investigation of missing facts, to Macedonian teenagers looking to make a buck to—unsubstantiated rumors have it—foreign agents out to subvert the election process. That last category has taken center stage since the election, ironically generating plenty of fake news of its own, as FAIR’s Adam Johnson has noted.
The death of reliable, locally based news outlets has created a vacuum that is too easily filled by stories that feel true, that can come with the endorsement of a friend or three on social media, but that contain no real information. In recent weeks, a new trend has even emerged, as “viral” posts are passed around Facebook with the direction to “cut and paste as your status.” This has included everything from lists of what’s changed since Trump’s election to a call for Women’s March participants to text their location to a certain number to be counted. That last turned out to be a campaign by a third-party organization, not the Women’s March organizers, underlining the problem with passing on unsourced information. The distrust for the news media is palpable, but filling the gaps with unverified rumor isn’t a solution.
Nor, of course, is blacklisting certain outlets as “fake news” (as Donald Trump, seizing on the trend, has tried to do), since big-name media outlets have certainly been guilty as well.
The distrust that many have for the existing “objective” media is grounded in reality: The norms of “balance” that for-profit media have relied on to avoid offending news consumers have been flawed for decades and seem utterly useless under an administration that considers lies simply “alternative facts.” The groundwork for that declaration was laid with decades of he-said, she-said, you-decide reporting, and deference to authority figures no matter how untruthful they be.
Take the headline-writing practice often used by newspapers like the New York Times and news services such as the Associated Press: “Trump Says Sprint Is Bringing Back Jobs,” “Trump Says Mexico Would Repay US Funds Spent on Border Wall” and, my personal favorite, “‘I’ve Been Proven to Be Right,’ Trump Says.” If one only skims headlines, one might be left believing the now-debunked story that Trump is responsible for creating jobs at mobile phone carrier Sprint, that Mexico has agreed to pay for a wall that Trump made central to his campaign, and, well, that Trump is right about something.
Treating everything the president says as newsworthy in itself is a longstanding custom, but it reaches new levels of absurdity when he’s known as a habitual liar. Challenging the things that Trump says is going to be ever more important, and figuring out how to frame stories so that readers aren’t left simply assuming that leaders tell the truth will be necessary.
In the first days of the Trump administration, we’ve also seen the announcement of executive order after executive order: Some of them, like the one to overturn the Affordable Care Act, largely meaningless, as this requires an act of Congress. Yet too often reports simply tell us that Trump is planning to or has made an executive order, without calculating the likelihood that the order is anything but more posturing.
Added to this challenge is that of handling the world’s first Twitter troll president. When we’ve elected someone with a tendency to pick fights with the less-powerful on Twitter (and at this point, nearly everyone is less powerful), what is the role of news outlets in covering such utterances? If the speech of the president is automatically newsworthy, does that include everything he tweets?
In order to introduce “balance” to news stories, objective news outlets often use conventions such as “critics say”—for example, “Texas Unveils ‘Bathroom Bill’ That Critics Say Targets LGBT Rights” (Reuters, 1/6/17). In this article, “socially conservative backers” of the legislation, which restricts bathroom access for transgender people, are pitted against unnamed “critics.” Who are these critics? Are they one random crank outside the office, or are they over 3 million protesters in the Women’s March?
The reduction of every issue to two sides is bad enough, but the elision of one of those sides into simply “critics” can mask all sorts of interests that might be at stake—from the people who would actually be affected by a proposal, such as transgender people in Texas, to those who have a financial stake in the outcome, like “critics” of a minimum wage increase. One can likely find critics of any proposal under the sun, but such framing provides next to no information. It’s just a trope used to provide “both sides” of an issue. But once again, instead of attempting to get to the truth of a matter, the reader is left unclear as to what the law would actually do.
As noted above, it’s not just false balance that is a problem for the mainstream media. The norms of objectivity and the tendency to take powerful people’s words as news in themselves at their worst led to Judith Miller‘s uncritical repetition of the Bush administration’s case for Iraq having so-called weapons of mass destruction. There have been brief flashes of understanding in recent days that a Trump administration is going to require more than stenography; even NBC News’ Chuck Todd, not known for his adversarial questioning, challenged Kellyanne Conway over “alternative facts,” noting that the Trump administration’s first press conference was based mostly on statements “that were just not true.”
Sometimes, facts are murky and getting at the truth is hard. In today’s media landscape, filled with high-speed hot-taking, there’s a large tendency in corporate and alternative media alike to charge forward and admit fault (or not) later. But as these issues with the corporate media show us, the solution to the “fake news” crisis is, of course, harder than simply blacking out a list of publications (and it is, sadly, much harder than relying on Facebook to police itself).
It requires a better grasp of media literacy, which is a tough thing to teach in one article or even one class—after all, dozens of trained journalists passed along the dubious PropOrNot story. But critical reading is an essential skill to work on moving forward into a Trump administration.
Who are the sources for a piece of news being asserted? What are their motivations, their connections? Are they named, are they people who would be likely to have this information, are they googleable? Is the story being reported elsewhere? If the site is clearly an aggregator (as in, their sources are all from another publication), click through and read the original and see how they compare. If there are photographs or video, do they match up with what is being said?
None of these are perfect tells, making the whole proposition that much harder. And, of course, the use of “clickbait” headlines has been embraced across the media landscape, from investigative reporting to utter fabrications.
Media literacy can feel like an unsatisfying solution; it does not have clear rules, clear yeses and nos. The false comfort of a blacklist can seem so much easier. But one of the challenges we face under Trump (and under late capitalism, which created the conditions that gave rise both to Trump and the fractured media system we have) is getting better at deciphering and sharing information. For those of us who care about consuming accurate information, perhaps the hardest task of all will be questioning our own desire for a particular narrative, and our willingness to dig in to challenge ourselves.
Politics and the English Language
Of course, we as journalists bear responsibility for what we put out in the world. Relying on readers to navigate the maze of buzzwords, jargon and heavy-handed conventions is simply unfair, not to mention unrealistic.
In considering the news crisis in Trumplandia, I have found myself returning over and over again to George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” In the wake of fascism, Orwell returned to the topic of language and clarity, the questions of communication and politics. Some of his criticisms seem particularly relevant today: “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not,” he wrote.
As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.
Instead of describing accurately what has happened, what is happening, writers draw on phrases that push buttons, cliches that sound meaningful but in fact tell us nothing. The phrase “protests descended into violence,” for example, or some variation, is incredibly common. Protests in Baltimore, Ferguson and Oakland, along with anti-Trump protests (which “veered” as well as descended), have been described in the exact same way, despite markedly different events in each instance.
And yet this stock phrase tells us almost nothing about what actually happened. Who was violent, and what was the violence? Was someone shot by police, or by another civilian, or did a protester throw an egg at a counter-protester? Did a marcher break a window, did the protesters burn a limo, did a security guard beat protesters with a baton?
Precision is important, not just because it makes for less hackneyed prose, but because it affects our understanding of the situation. Skimming an article that informs us that protests “descended into violence” might leave us imagining armed dissidents attacking police, when the opposite may in fact be the case.
Shorthands are no doubt necessary at times, but the substitution of catchphrases for accurate descriptions leaves us communicating past one another, missing the reality of the situation while feeling well-informed.
Accuracy does not mean objectivity; the charge of bias has long been the first club wielded against independent journalism. But equally, being transparent about one’s political orientation does not supplant the need for facts—in “correcting” the flaws of the mainstream media, it can often seem like the new flood of websites has substituted partisan alignment for actual information.
For those who want to challenge a Trump administration and its allies in politics and the business class, whether out of political conviction or simply a desire to maintain the role of an adversarial press, the specifics truly will matter, and being as clear and transparent as possible is more of a necessity than ever.