Donald Trump, the “Pinocchio President”, has turned the media world upside down.
It may be the best thing that’s happened to journalism, since the arrival of Edward R. Murrow.
I know that may be hard to comprehend, given the chaos and fireworks of the first news conference granted by the President elect, this week. After all, what could be more bizarre than Fox News, publicly defending its rival, CNN? Especially considering that Fox has been the unabashed mouthpiece of Tea Party Conservatives for nearly a decade. But at its heart, Fox is still a commercial enterprise, and Rupert Murdoch, its’ owner is, most definitely, a capitalist.
Because Murdoch can see the end game of President Pinocchio’s “unique” approach to the media hordes. Labelling everything as false news, and leaving the public with no trustworthy conduit for fact and information, works for Trump, but not for Murdoch, or any other media enterprise.
If President Pinocchio destroys the credibility of all mainstream media, then his colourful and mendacious Twitter account is the only direct source of information from the most powerful office in the world. The ‘truth’ then, is whatever Donald doles out, in 140 characters or less. Twitter becomes America’s PRAVDA; the official source of government news.
It’s tin-pot despot stuff, fit for only the most autocratic of dictators; or the most thin-skinned, egotistical megalomaniacs, one can imagine. ( In this case, both descriptions may be applied. ) It doesn’t work for commercial news outlets. They thrive only on a field of contestable claims, where interpretation, and bias are critical to the creation of debate. Debate spawns dramatic tension. It’s compelling, and allows viewers, readers, and listeners to interact with their own take on whatever issue happens to be kicking around, on any given day.
A single source for information, does a network like Fox, no good. Even if they support Trump, and at least some of his agenda, President Pinocchio has made the ground beneath them so unstable, that he can destroy the day’s editorial line with a single tweet.
Imagine, for example, a situation in which Fox decides that the repeal of Obamacare, is the story of the day. They announce that the President will make that issue the first priority of his administration, and that Republican legislators are already drawing up the necessary Bill to kill the health care plan. Their live talk shows are gathering plenty of opinions from key players in the issue, as well as public commentary. The ball is rolling. Then comes the tweet from President Pinocchio : “Fox is wrong about Obamacare. Immigration is more important. False news again. ”
It may be that Trump actually believes that; or not. Who knows? Maybe he’s thinking that the repeal of Obamacare might have serious impact on the mid-term elections for Republicans. Maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he hasn’t made up his mind about what he’ll do with Obamacare. Or maybe he’s changed it again in the last 20 minutes. In any case, he can’t let Fox control the agenda, or lead the way. They are wrong. They are spreading false news. They are just another cog in the great wheel of the lying media. Only the Twitter account of the P.O.T.U.S. can be trusted for the truth.
How then, does Fox continue to operate competitively? They have no agenda to push, and no clear direction to follow. Conservatism, is whatever Trump decides to make it. Their basic raison d’etre, is as flimsy as the President’s fly-away hair.
When there is no black and white, there is only a mushy grey middle, akin to the muddy battlefields of Passchendaele. A hopeless quagmire, that no one can negotiate.
Murdoch, and Fox see this quite clearly. And, while we may be tempted here to taunt them with the old idiom. ” be careful what you wish for …”, the truth is, they deserve great credit for their self-serving defence of their rival. Calling out Trump and publicly scolding him for his disrespect and disingenuous dissing of CNN, took courage. Not only did they take the side of a bitter rival, they did so before President Pinocchio actual took office. That set the benchmark. The clear line in the sand, that will define media coverage of this administration for at least the next four years.
When you call my adversary illegitimate, you also call into question the legitimacy of my cause. If the enemy is of no consequence, then how important is my opposition to the foe?
Fox needs CNN to be a credible organization, so that their opposition to the editorial views of that network, mean something.
But like many initiatives the efforts of Fox, in this matter, will have unintended consequences.
And that is where the public, average citizens like you and me, will reap the most benefit.
Having spent 35 years in the news industry, I have seen first-hand, the deteriorating evolution of journalism, and its standards of accuracy and attribution. Through the pressures of competition, and the massive disruptive force of the internet, traditional news outlets suffered mightily, and lost their sense of direction, and purpose.
Once seen as an important public service, news operations were dealt a critical blow when struggling broadcasters decided that news was a commercial commodity to be sold like soap, in the most profitable means possible. The resulting financial pressures on newsrooms, resulted in cuts to staff and a new focus on pandering to the viewing audience. That meant fewer people available to pursue stories of genuine public concern, and less time to gather the facts of those stories. It also spawned the rise of the ‘cult of personality’, the increasing emphasis on things like celebrity news.
There was less “news”, and more “infotainment” in each broadcast, in a bid to claim and keep as many public eyeballs as possible. When surveys said that weather was of key interest to the average viewer, the broadcast industry responded with “Storm Watch”, or some other ludicrously overboard iteration of the standard weather forecast. Journalism, real journalism, took a back seat, and standards for producing those stories began to slip precipitously.
It got so bad, that in the newsroom in which I worked, we were encouraged to include unsubstantiated claims and comments, and even rumours into our scripts, and put them to air as quickly as possible.
The theory behind this, was that it didn’t matter whether the statements made were right, wrong, or simply misinformed. They were statements made by an individual connected to the story, and that was good enough. If they were wrong, that wasn’t really a problem, because they could be revised, or corrected, in the next hour of broadcast. The story was “evolving”, don’t you see?
That pervasive attitude in newsrooms across North America, led to sloppy, lazy journalism and contributed more profoundly to the perception of “fake news” than any other single factor. When viewers and readers became uncertain of your credibility, and accuracy, they gave up on believing you, or anyone else. All of the news was either wrong, or bullshit. There was no reliable baseline.
That made the ground fertile and rewarding for those who wanted to push clickbait, and false news across the internet, No one was checking facts, because there was no credible source to turn to.
That’s what made the claims of Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, credible and attractive to huge numbers of voters. When he said the press was filled with “liars”, the claim resonated with people who had lost faith in the credibility of the mainstream media.
Luckily, President Pinocchio’s election, and subsequently disastrous Twitter stream, provided a hard slap of reality to the somnambulant, mainstream media. His freak-show news conference, that made Fox and CNN sudden, and unwitting allies, sealed the deal.
No longer can major media organizations rely on the words of traditional sources. Press handouts. Media releases, from corporate entities.
The crisis in credibility, and the spread of false news, has forced Journalism to look hard in the mirror and make some choices, or risk ultimate destruction. Confirmation and attribution, are suddenly important again. And if you doubt that, take a look at the public flogging “Buzzfeed” received, for publishing 35 uncorroborated pages of salacious accusations involving President Pinocchio and rivers of urine, in a Russian hotel room.
The sharp rebuke of the on-line media site made it clear that it is no longer business as usual for the media, be they traditional or digital.
In order to have any chance of survival, factual information must be paramount. It will be the only avenue open, to reveal what is actually happening in the White House, and inside the American government. The only way to counter a clearly anti-democratic trend in U.S. national politics. To make the public see what a dangerous demagogue they’ve chosen, to lead their nation.
That return to the traditional pillars of real journalism; facts, attribution, and confirmation, will benefit all of us, in the long run.