(February 9, 2021 / JNS) Welcome to a world where you can’t trust a single thing you hear. The news is dismissed as “fake,” and the information we receive comes with alternating prefixes—“mis” or “dis.”
Is anything we’re told ever true?
Former President Donald Trump introduced a new genre of truth-telling known as “fake news.” It started on day one, immediately after his inauguration, when truth went into eclipse. The inaugural was sparsely attended by historical comparisons. No shame in that. But Trump, always the showman and annoyed by a simultaneous Women’s March inspired by his infamous Access Hollywood segment, decided that the media had severely undercounted the crowd. A record number of well-wishers had actually attended the kickoff to his presidency.
And with that, all unflattering news about the Trump administration was forevermore deemed as “fake” by the administration. The media, for its part, didn’t help matters by reporting only negative news about the president—no quarter for any of his achievements, never given the benefit of the doubt. The battle lines were clearly delineated. Trump referred to the press as the “enemy.” The media didn’t exactly rise above the skirmish. (The ratings were too good. Besides, they built him with all the free coverage he received during the 2016 campaign.)
And so, “fake news” entered the public consciousness. Journalists and broadcasters might have their own agendas, and it had nothing to do with truth-telling. They didn’t so much as report the news as implant a story they wanted the American public to believe—giving it a decidedly Blue State bias. They weren’t journalists but evangelists, deliberately leaving out facts, slanting content, editorializing rather than objectively reporting.
Trump had a new twist on Marshall McLuhan’s seminal work, The Medium Is the Message. The media wasn’t going to let facts get in the way of directing its readers or audience what to think. Trump was a news junkie’s godsend. With him—the ultimate bad guy, so easy to root against—even bad news would be welcome. The news was suddenly tailored for a particular audience. The central message would remain unchanged, no matter what events actually transpired. Confirmation biases were reassuringly spoon-fed and lapped up.
Tune in and join the revelry of the like-minded: Donald Trump was evil, and anyone who supported him or even had conflicted feelings about him was no better than the man himself.
Ever since the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol, however, the Biden administration has already adopted its own strategy for shaping the news. Whatever the public was hearing that wasn’t consistent with the aims of the new administration was casually dismissed as untrue, concocted by those who only wish to deceive.
Of course, it’s easier to control the message when both mass media, which commodifies the news, and social media, which accelerates its delivery, are on your side. Biden’s cushy treatment by the media so far suggests that it might surpass the eight years of kid-gloving the Obama White House. The Fourth Estate might be in line for a Cabinet seat.
Americans are now being repeatedly warned to stay on constant alert for “misinformation” or, even worse, “disinformation.” The government and the mainstream press are jointly informing the public that if news is reported outside of official channels, then it should be dismissed as incorrect.
And what kinds of falsehoods are slyly being peddled as truth? Anything that cast doubt on the recent presidential election or Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China. Anything that suggests that America is not a racist nation with half its population as white supremacists. Favorable stories about the oil and coal industries. Any mention that transgender women should not be able to participate in women’s collegiate sports. Anyone who disapproves of open borders or complains about rising crime rates and releasing offenders without bail. And the most dreaded disinformation of all: that the police aren’t actually targeting African-American males.
Surrounded as we are by either news that is fake or information that is plainly false, where only one point of view can be tolerated and no differences of opinion are allowed, no wonder that far too many Americans are walking around with clenched teeth, their heads filled with multiple conspiracy theories.
It wasn’t always this way.
Remember Walter Cronkite, anchorman for the CBS Evening News for nearly 20 years, with his avuncular voice keeping the nation informed about the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war, the Apollo moon landing and Watergate? He wasn’t Hollywood handsome or controversial or particularly entertaining, and yet 29 million Americans (nowadays, the major networks manage only 5 million viewers) religiously watched his broadcast every night.
All that time, we never knew whether he was a Democrat or Republican, a liberal or conservative; whether he was against the war in Vietnam; whether he believed the counterculture needed a haircut and that Woodstock spelled the end of the world. Knowing those things about him was none of our business. He was a newsman; his subjective feelings didn’t interfere with his job.
Opinion polls routinely and overwhelmingly reflected the national sentiment that he was the “most trusted man in America.”
Who would occupy that lofty post of national faithfulness today? Would any of the network or cable news anchors rank ahead of Kim Kardashian?
Earning the trust of the people is the only way that institutions—whether they be governmental, corporate or communications—have any legitimacy. The character of a nation depends on a social contract that is drafted without signatures. It’s all sealed with a handshake.
Today, we are surrounded by mistrust and skepticism everywhere. Promises aren’t just broken; they were never believed at the outset. Truth is elusive, and consensus is nonexistent. Shaking hands is impossible when people won’t meet one another halfway.
The absence of mutual respect numbered the days of polite society. Just look at the rage that’s exhibited online. Snark has replaced smarts. Artificial intelligence can’t arrive soon enough. Placing our trust in machines has better prospects.
We might be able to reverse course. But for now, as Cronkite signed off nightly, “And that’s the way it is.”
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.”
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