A look at why we shouldn’t take the Trump administration’s attacks on the media lightly.
The Trump administration accuses experienced journalists and established news outlets, be they print, online or broadcast media, of being ‘fake news’. His understanding of fake news seems to be: coverage of something he has done that he doesn’t want people to hear about, or that is unflattering to him. Trump himself insults and shouts down journalists who ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. Yet he is addicted to attention and publicity.
Therefore the plan is to bypass the media and (according to Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to Donald Trump), “…go straight to the audiences. Whether it’s through Twitter, whether it’s through You Tube – it doesn’t matter.”
Another name for going straight to the audience, with a message controlled only by the sender and which presents ‘alternative facts’ rather than truth, is ‘propaganda’.
Propaganda is the grandfather of fake news. It’s supported and enabled by decrying genuine, verifiable news reports and declaring them lies; accusing journalists of dishonesty and undermining anyone or any publication that reports the facts in a way the propagandists don’t want.
Gorka’s comments about going straight to the audience through Twitter or You Tube – the popular media platforms of the day – remind me of Goebbels’ interest in the use of radio in Nazi Germany.
What Goebbels did next was take control of the media and ban the publication or broadcast of anything that deviated from the party line. Propaganda was a step on the road to state control of the media – so the audience only hears what those in power want them to.
I grant you there are elements of modern mass media that don’t help in refuting criticism of journalism. If you take the sort of newspapers and websites that run on celebrity ‘news’ and gossip, together with mass circulation tabloids that have (or still) dedicate themselves to running salacious, tawdry or trivial stories about people of little consequence, but who happen to be in the public eye, then add in the shame of the phone hacking scandal – you have a picture of journalism and journalists as doing anything to get a story – including sometimes making things up. At best it’s amoral, at worst immoral, but that’s a very narrow and very specific slice of journalism. It’s also true there are individual publications and broadcasters – even established ones – who publish through an editorially biased lens, but they are not representative of journalism or the media as a whole either.
I trained and qualified as a journalist and the unethical minority I describe above doesn’t reflect the sort of journalist I was taught to be. Integrity, ethics and balance were things drummed into us along with encouragement to be obsessed by accuracy and committed to checking – by which I mean verifying – facts. Training included practical journalism, media law and public affairs. As well as teaching us about local and central government and the workings of the state, the latter explained the role of journalists and the media in holding those in power to account.
Reporting on those in/with power is a vital part of democracy. A free press has the right – and the duty – to do that. Journalists have the skills and experience to gather and report on the happenings of the day and communicate them to the wider public. Once with the audience they too are empowered to hold those in authority to account.
The freedom and, very importantly, the diversity of news media is a vital part of democracy. When it is criticised and derided, as it has been by the Trump administration, then it is doing its job. The audience might also reasonably ask what those doing the criticising, especially when it’s so vehement, have to hide.
The media may not be perfect but there is a wide a range of diverse news outlets, staffed by journalists with integrity. Such journalists understand their duty, first and foremost, is to their readers, viewers and listeners through balanced reporting of facts so the audience reads, hears or sees both sides of a story.
A state-controlled media tells only one side of the story – and it’s likely to be a fairy story. It does not hold those in power to account, it merely tells what the administration running that state wants people to hear.
A free press, by which I mean professional news-gatherers, reporters and journalists publishing online, in print or via broadcast news without editorial interference by the state (or private owners), is worth defending against attack – because an attack on a free press is also an attack on democracy. In return a free press offers a line of defence against those who would attack democracy.
Good journalism is all about asking questions, especially of those in or with power. As we’ve witnessed Donald Trump doesn’t seem to like good journalism. He sees it as fake news. The late Tony Benn – a former MP but also a member of the National Union of Journalists – came up with five vital questions to put to people in power.
“What power have you got?
“Where did you get it from?
“In whose interests do you use it?
“To whom are you accountable?
“How do we get rid of you?”
“Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”
Refusing to answer questions and trying to put a stop to those asking them is an abuse of democratic power. We should look on it as a warning sign of what is to come.