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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

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Guardians of the Truth? Notes on MSM

Alan Rusbridger, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism  (2018).

1.

The National Post (not my favourite Canadian newspaper) published a particularly nasty column by Rex Murphy (not my favourite Canadian columnist) a few months ago, lamenting the dismal state of contemporary journalism. Ostensibly, Mr. Murphy was taking issue with Time magazine’s decision at the end of 2018 to name beleaguered journalists around the world as the magazine’s annual “person of the year,” under the heading, “Guardians of the Truth.”

Journalism.

Murphy, one of the op-ed regulars at the Post, is probably little-known outside his parochial Canadian stomping grounds, but enjoys a reputation in Canada as a popular media figure. He’s been column-writing, radio-broadcasting, and delivering the CBC-TV national news  editorial for seeming (and probably literal) decades. He’s one of those talking heads for whom the term “bloviating” was specifically invented. He specializes in a florid, pompous style of delivery, a charming regional accent, and a tone of faux-gravitas in which he wraps otherwise conventional and reactionary observations.

Rex Murphy.

Murphy’s views about the press were particularly noteworthy. He used the occasion of Time’s (possibly self-serving) nod to journos as an opportunity to offer up an attack on current journalism – a.k.a. MSM (Mainstream Media) — the enterprise of reporting the news, and the not small matter of telling the truth. And just for free, Murphy tossed in a shout-out or two of encouragement to the American president, Donald J. Trump. Murphy’s views are not entirely idiosyncratic; a surprisingly large portion of the public (both from the right and left wings of the political spectrum) are dismissive of the reliability of MSM, which is why I’m bothering with Murphy’s effusion at the beginning of this review of a journalism memoir by Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the widely-read Guardian newspaper, based in London. (Rex Murphy, “Time is wrong. Today’s journalists are not ‘guardians of the truth’,” The National Post, Dec. 28, 2018.)

Time’s “Guardians of the Truth” covers.

After taking a gratuitous whack at Time magazine itself – “that tattered shrunken revenant of a once-popular news magazine”  — Murphy formally begins by disparaging Jamal Khoshoggi, the Saudi-born journalist brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey last year, apparently on the orders of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The Canadian pundit dismisses Khoshoggi as a mere “stooge” of the rival Qatar government, and not even the circumstances of his killing elicits a drop of sympathy. Murphy is quickly onto the subject that seems to be at the core of his op-ed: the media’s mis-treatment of the American president.

“As far as journalists collectively being honoured with the ascription ‘guardians,’” says Murphy, “that surely cannot apply in North America or Europe if we take most of their coverage of Donald Trump as the testing ground. Trump journalism will some day earn its place in medical literature, side by side with malarial fever and LSD as engines of hallucination and fitful nightmares.”

Murphy charges that “Trump journalism is obsessive, manic and undoubtedly adversarial. Much of it is wish-fantasy in print or online.” Murphy’s sole example of this hallucinatory disorder is that the pollsters got the 2016 election predictions completely wrong. The “evidence” of malfeasance “was clear from the night of [Trump’s] election, when that great organ of high reportage, The New York Times” and its pollster, along with just about every other outfit in the polling business missed the call by a large margin. “Error of that magnitude doesn’t spring from faulty polling or inadequate assessment of the public mood.” Yes, it’s purely the result of near-criminal bias, Murphy suggests.

Actually, Murphy is misleading on the polling errors, and he skips the mea culpa explanations of pollster Nate Silver (of the usually accurate 538 website) and his confreres in the business. Nor does he mention the 3-million-popular-vote plurality of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, since that would lead to a discussion of the peculiar Electoral College system used for electing presidents in the U.S., where Trump indeed won a narrow, almost accidental victory. Less than one-per cent in 3 or 4 states – maybe a hundred thousand votes – made the difference. (And yes, a win is a win, as we all know too well.)

Obama (l.) and Trump (r.) inaugural crowds.

But the argument is not about pollsters. It’s that this is Murphy’s sole example of the media’s “obsessive, manic and undoubtedly adversarial” bias in its coverage of Trump. There’s no mention that within 24 hours of Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, he and his minions were falsely claiming that his inauguration crowds were larger than any in history or, er, at least larger than his predecessor’s, Barrack Obama. Not even the publication of side-by-side photos the next day of the Trump and Obama inaugurals, proving that the latter’s swearing-in audience was larger acted as a caution against exaggeration. Nor does Murphy mention any of the subsequent 7,000-and-counting lies that followed on the first ones (yes, several mainstream papers hired fact-checkers to tally the president’s penchant for “post-truths”). Nor is there much notice of POTUS denouncing smartphone-stained wretches (a.k.a. journalists) as “enemies of the people.”

For some reason, Murphy is also particularly down on climate change reporting. “Place the adjective environmental to govern the noun journalism,” says Murphy, “and the former swallows up, nullifies, extinguishes quite the latter.” I think he’s trying to say in the foregoing tangled sentence that climate change reporting isn’t very good. “The majority of environmental journalists,” he adds, “are a choir in perfect harmony on a one-note score, the settled-science symphony of the IPCC and Al Gore.” Of course, Rex offers not a word of refutation of the documented reports of the United Nations’ Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. For the climate-change doubters and deniers, scientific consensus on the looming catastrophe is indeed the “inconvenient truth” (to cite the title of former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore’s documentary on the subject that apparently incensed Murphy).

Murphy sums it up thus: “Journalism is frequently as wayward as the social media it ritually deplores, propelled by a lust-like drive to the parts of a story that accord with its prejudices and predispositions. It has long since replaced the attempt to be objective with a commitment to activism and advocacy. Much of contemporary journalism does not report on the game. It sees itself as part of the game – it seeks to massage opinion, reinforce favoured perspectives, take down its ‘enemies,’ and shield its heroes.” Well, no. MSM is not as “wayward as the social media it ritually deplores,” etc.

Several things are remarkable aboutRex Murphy’s vitriolic spew. First, it’s a fact (…or it isn’t a fact) that journalism is a more dangerous occupation than it was in the recent past. I think it’s a fact that more journalists were assassinated, jailed, threatened and silenced in the last two years than before, and Time magazine’s story documents that fact, thus providing rational grounds for calling attention to the “guardians of the truth.”

Beyond that, the quality of the coverage of the Trump presidency and climate science findings, particularly in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Britain’s Guardian and even the conservative Wall Street Journal, as well as on CNN, makes Murphy’s histrionic complaints particularly ironic. Indeed, it would be fairly easy to argue that mainstream journalism has seen some of its finest hours (and years) ever since the beginning of 2017. Of course, it’s true that on the editorial side, the liberal press has relentlessly criticized the Trump presidency. But it’s also true that the rightwing press, from Fox News to Breitbart and worse, has sychophantically supported the president every step of the way. If there’s a case to be made about slanted reporting, a survey of Fox-style fawning would probably be more to the point than complaints about critical coverage of Trump.

On the whole, I’d say that MSM has the picture of the Trump administration pretty much in focus, whether it’s the portrait of a chaotic White House in constant internecine-war mode, or the presentation of Trump’s policies, complete with fact-checks and critical perspectives. Television programs such as CNN’s Reliable Sources, hosted by Brian Stelter, which provide a running conversation about the ethics and obstacles of contemporary Trump- era journalism, have become a necessary go-to place on the viewing schedule. Certainly, the harumph-harumph dismissal of current journalism by critics like Murphy is shown up as fatuous by simply competent examination of the reality. (I’ll return to the fascinating problem of reality and interpretation in due course, but first an eyewitness report on the “breaking news” story.)

2.

There’s a pertinent gallows-humour meme about journalism that’s been making the rounds on the internet lately. It’s an update on a famous World War II concentration camp poem by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, “First They Came,” that goes, “First they came for the Communists, / and I did not speak out / because I was not a Communist.” It goes through the various other categories of people – socialists, trade unionists, and Jews – that the Nazis came for, and for whom Niemoeller (and others) did not speak out, and ends, “Then they came for me / and there was no one left / to speak for me.”

A meme.

The new social media version goes, “First they came for the journalists / and I did not speak out / because I was not a journalist. // We have no idea / what they did after that.” The obvious point being, once there’s no one left to report it, we are left in ignorance.

That’s one of the main themes of former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s Breaking News, an engaging memoir of two decades at the helm of a major newspaper during the upheaval of the digital revolution in journalism. Veteran reporters and editors, such as Ian Jack and Robert Kaiser, among others, have been rightfully enthusiastic about Rusbridger’s account. Jack, the former editor of Granta, notes, “As editor of the Guardian from 1995 to 2015, Rusbridger published investigations and campaigns that will rank high in any history of journalism.” Rusbridger details several of the paper’s “scoops” in his memoir, and as Washington Post alumnus Robert Kaiser put it in a Financial Times review, “We love a good newspaper yarn and Rusbridger provides a dandy.” During Rusbridger’s tenure, says Kaiser, “The Guardian did more consequential reporting than any other British paper.” (Ian Jack, “Breaking News by Alan Rusbridger,” Guardian, Sept. 1, 2018; Robert Kaiser, “Breaking News by Alan Rusbridger – A Digital Journey,” Financial Times, Sept. 8, 2018.)

Breaking news.

Rusbridger skillfully reminds readers of the stories in which the Guardian was a “guardian of the truth” in far more than a rhetorical sense. Beyond the usual exposures of lying, thieving politicians (at least one of whom landed in jail), there were two particularly revelatory investigations, both of which touched on the fundamentals of journalism itself.

One was a series of stories about the original “fake news” wing of the media, namely, the tabloid press and its heretofore unknown criminal habit of phone hacking as it pursued salacious tales of celebrity hijinks. The Guardian’s investigation into journalistic misdeeds, particularly by the journo-thugs employed at publisher Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, didn’t make Rusbridger popular among fellow editors, but it led to a formal public inquiry into the practices of shady and often cruel “reporting,” and the closing down of NotW (though, in the end, the bosses of London’s Fleet Street managed to dodge much of the scrutiny).

Equally spectacular, but more imortant for political life, was the series occasioned by the presence of journalist Glenn Greenwald at the paper. His contacts with whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency employee, disclosed a vast and secret surveillance program of ordinary citizens in the U.S. and Britain. The stories sparked an international debate about the limits of the democratic state and won the Guardian a Pulitzer Prize (which it shared with the Washingtion Post).

Alan Rusbridger.

There were other journalistic triumphs – such as dumps of secret diplomatic cables courtesy of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, and an editorial campaign, “keep it in the ground,” about fossil fuels – but Rusbridger has an even larger two-pronged story to tell. First, there’s the nuts-and-bolts account of the greatest technological change in information exchange since Gutenburg’s invention of moveable type a half millennium ago, and how it nearly decimated modern day journalism. Beyond that, there’s an underlying, equally to-the-point  meditation on reality and truth.

Rusbridger’s framing of the story is worth a look. By early 2017, Rusbridger says, “the world had woken up to a problem that, with a mixture of impotence, incomprehension and dread, journalists had seen coming for some time. News – the thing that helped people understand their world; that oiled the wheels of society; that pollinated communities; that kept the powerful honest – news was broken.”

The problem had multiple descriptions and diagnoses. “Some thought we were drowning in too much news; others feared we were in danger of becoming newsless,” says Rusbridger. There was little agreement on a single narrative. Everything from “legacy” media’s faults to the sewage of social media were offered up as potential explanations of our current condition. What people could agree on, Rusbridger observes, is that “we were now up to our necks in a seething, ever-churning ocean of information; some of it true, much of it wrong. There was too much false news, not enough reliable news.”

Donald Trump.

To make matters worse, along came the 45th president of the United States and “fake news.” “Donald Trump used the term  so indiscriminately it rapidly lost any meaning… Truth was fake; fake was true,” Rusbridger says. “Suddenly it was not so easy to establish, or agree on, truths. The dawning realisation that we were in trouble coincided with the near-collapse of the broad economic model for journalism. People had – sort of – known that was happening, but in a world of too much news they had stopped noticing. In a world of too much to absorb, and never enough time, people skipped the story.”

Rusbridger then briefly pauses to provide one extended and telling example, among hundreds of available distortions and outright lies, of how Trump mangles reality for ideological purposes — in this instance to support his opposition to migrants and refugees. At a post-campaign victory lap rally in Florida in Feb. 2017, Trump drew attention to an alleged grim situation of sexual assault and refugee-caused violence unfolding in, of all places, Sweden. In a Twitter follow-up the next day, Trump told his millions of followers on the social media platform that his claim about violent immigration-inspired problems in the usually bucolic Scandinavian nation was “in reference to a story that was broadcast on Fox News concerning immigrants & Sweden.”

It turned out, reports Rusbridger, that “the previous Friday night’s [Fox TV program] Tucker Carlson Tonight had included an interview with someone we might call a media controversialist,” a freelance journalist named Ami Horowitz, who claimed, “There was a surge in gun violence and rape in Sweden once they began this open-door policy” of admitting Syrian war refugees. Some time later, rummaging through his Twitter feed, Rusbridger discovered a United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) figure “retweeting news of a horrific attack on a teenage girl in Malmo, Sweden.” A related tweet claimed – and this was the indelible image readers were left with – “While she was being raped the rapists poured lighter fuel in her vagina and set it on fire.” Mainstream media, charged the tweeter, “is quiet,”i.e., it was not reporting or, worse, covering up the incident. He urged his followers to “retweet,” that is, to spread the story. At which point, Rusbridger put on his old battered journalist’s fedora to check out a story that was graphically horrific, and whose echoes had even reappeared in an anti-immigrant stump speech by the president of the U.S.

I won’t reprise all the details of Rusbridger’s investigation into whether the incident – including the alleged “obscene barbarity” – actually happened, and whether the broader claim of a Sweden out of control due to its immigration policies was true.  As might be expected, this was one of those occasions where the truth could barely lace up its sneakers before the big lie was already halfway around the world on one of those luxury flights that Emirate and Qatar airlines regularly advertise on CNN International. Rusbridger patiently chases down the most gruesome details, talks to the semi-anonymous tweeters, interviews some journalist pals in Sweden, and takes into account all the grains or “germs” of half-truth at the bottom of an unpleasant tale.

What the retired editor ends up with is a farrago of exaggerated claims about almost everything involved in the story, including the case of the girl assaulted in Malmo. That Sweden took in more refugees from the Syrian civil war than any country in Europe apart from Germany was perhaps the only undistorted actual fact. No, there was no substantiation of the horrific lighter fuel story, or the claims of Sweden in chaos, but there was just enough rumour and ideologically-inspired speculation to make its way to a journalistically unreliable right-wing TV talk show watched by the American president, who used its sensational claims as the basis for broadcasting his own partisan views about the question of global migration. Rusbridger’s excursus into the dialectics of contemporary truth offers a concise and appropriately nuanced capsule version of how some of the “news” is made (and/or fabricated) , as well as suitable cautions about our own credulity. (For more, see, BBC News, “Reality Check: Is Malmo the ‘rape capital’ of Europe?”, BBC, Feb. 24, 2017.)

Rusbridger’s probe into the Sweden story occupies only a few pages of his memoir, but it’s emblematic of the deeper issues that he flags as urgently needing attention. One noteworthy feature of Trump’s assertions is how close they are to bizarre internet conspiracy stories. Sometimes he buys into and promotes such stories directly, as with the “birther” conspiracy theory, in which Trump claimed that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, was born not in the U.S., but in Africa (and that falsehood was often linked to the further false claim that Obama was a secret Muslim.) Yet, often enough the stories Trump invokes, like the Sweden story, are based on a claim with enough of a grain-of-truth basis that they can plausibly make their way to the Fox News quasi-news shows that Trump likes to watch. In the end, truth, as they say on Facebook about relationships, is “complicated.” It’s also important.

The issue of truth is what most interests me about Rusbridger’s memoir of the Guardian, but it’s not the main story. What reviewer Robert Kaiser calls the “principal narrative” of Rusbridger’s book is “a description of the unprecedented disruption of journalism in Europe and America” during the period of Rusbridger’s tenure. As Ian Jack puts it in his reading of Breaking News, “the digital revolution overwhelmed the traditions of newspaper publishing in all kinds of ways, not least philosophically.”

The pragmatic question was financial. As Rusbridger remarked earlier, “the entire economic model of information was about to fall apart.” The arrival of Facebook and other social platforms, and the appearance of new online start-up news services changed everything for the old mainstream newspapers that relied on various categories of advertising, and individual purchasers of and subscribers to the paper.

Two notable processes unfolded at once. First, the “classified” advertising for everything from household items and services to used cars and real estate, which had been a mainstay of newspapers, was quickly and thoroughly replaced. In its stead came an array of online services, like Craigslist, Angie’s List, and even E-Bay, that offered exactly such advertising, plus users’ reviews of the products and services. The online marketplace was faster, cheaper and easier to use than anything a physical newspaper could deliver. Similar deterioration occurred in the related area of “display” advertising for big-ticket goods.

At the same time, online news services put print newspapers in an equally difficult bind. The traditional papers could offer their contents online and try to sell digital subscriptions. But the online news sites were offering similar material “free.” Newspapers could put up “paywalls” to prevent free-loader readers from consuming their news, or they could set up rival free digital operations, and hope to pick up some advertising revenues. Different papers took different routes.

Rusbridger led the Guardian – which is run by the non-profit Scott Trust (with a tidy billion British pounds in assets) —  in a digital direction, at one point becoming the world’s most-visited online newspaper. Given the paper’s non-profit ownership and its left-of-center political leanings, it was not inclined to go for paywalls, for both ideological reasons and because of the demographics of its global readership. Other papers, like the New York Times, took the paywall route, and somewhat surprisingly (aided by the eccentric nature of the Trump presidency) made a go of online subscriptions.

The Guardian’s strategy, as Ian Jack notes, “was to create such a large audience through free access that online advertising would meet the bills for everything.” However, he continues, “What nobody foresaw – or nobody, at least, outside California – was that most of the growth in digital advertising would be captured by Facebook and Google, which had developed software that could identify the tastes and purchasing histories of every consumer online.” What we ended up with was Facebook users posting articles freely available from MSM newspapers, and those same users being subjected to “targeted” advertising, while also providing Facebook with huge amounts of personal data which it could mine and sell to anyone in need of such information. At the same profitable time, Facebook was not required to share revenues with the papers, even though its site was using original content from the press. While large urban centre newspapers struggled under the new conditions, huge swaths of medium-size and small-town media were simply wiped out, along with thousands of journalistic jobs.

As for the Guardian, Rusbridger’s successor in 2015, Katherine Viner, instituted some painful cost-costing measures, and opted for a model that left the site open to all visitors, and depended on voluntary financial contributions from readers-cum-“members.” Interestingly, some 800,000 individuals voted with their wallets and purses to support the paper and, at last report, it looked like the Guardian was on track to reaching a sustainable break-even balance.

This is the instructive and entertaining told-from-inside tale that Rusbridger imparts. It’s also a story of convoluted gyrations and sometimes dicey innovations as MSM tried to figure out how to respond to an utterly changed information landscape. Some of it worked – Rusbridger tried to push a notion of “open journalism” in which readers became sort-of collaborators with the professional journalists. Other innovations, such as “reader response,” turned into a social media nightmare, with the readers hurling insults at each other and violating “community standards” as fast as the newspapers’ newly-hired “moderators” could invent them. In the end, a lot of papers put a tighter rein on free-ranging commentary, or considerably pared it back.

Rusbridger’s memoir is not the end of the story. In fact, he has to leave it – to coin a bad Latin pun – in medias res. But that’s okay. Readers come away with a reasonably clear idea of the present state of journalism and why it matters. I probably should note – in the interests of disclosure – that I’m one of those Guardian readers who sends in an annual contribution to keep the paper afloat. So, to sum up: Rusbridger’s memoir is warmly recommended. That leaves only the small philosophical problem of reality and reporting.

3.

It’s easy to see why the general public thinks that the media is “biased,” or unreliable, or at least it’s easy to see why the public is confused, and to be sympathetic to the quandary. First of all, the term “media” can be misleading,  if we mean by it simply one monolithic entity. Instead, there is a broad spectrum on which to locate various mediums by various criteria, including political positions, intentions (e.g. “infotainment” vs. “news and analysis”), and scope. Further, there are sundry categories of media: the range of MSM takes in “serious” newspapers and electronic broadcasting, like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the BBC and CNN, and stretches all the way to celebrity-focused tabloids, represented in the U.S. by publications like the National Enquirer and dozens of online sites such as TMZ. In terms of the “truth,” in this discussion we can leave aside most of the sensationalist tabloid realm, while noting that they nonetheless have a real effect on the state of mind of large segments of the population, particularly “less educated” demographic categories.

Among the serious MSM publications and broadcasters, there’s a variety of political positions, although given ownership patterns in a capitalist society, there’s a tendency for big newspapers to lean in a conservative direction. The New York Times and the Washington Post, contrary to the general pattern, are clearly liberal and left-liberal papers, and there are even social democratically oriented publications, such as the Guardian. While all of them clearly label and demarcate editorial “opinion” from “news” stories and “analysis,” that may not be especially helpful to casual readers. Other outlets, like Fox TV, are hyper-conservative, and in the case of the Trump-supporting Fox, most of its programs are partisan editorialising shows that make little pretense of being other than near-propaganda producers (a situation further inflamed by Fox “personalities” often ending up in White House jobs or acting as public and informal advisors to the president).

Finally, in terms of categories, if there is MSM, found in almost all North American big cities – from the Boston Globe, to the Los Angeles Times, to the Chicago Tribune, or, in Canada, Toronto’s Globe and Mail – then there’s also a lot of MSM2: what I like to refer to as MinorStreamMedia. I’m more interested in the leftist MSM2 – such as Truthdig, Counterpunch, Jacobin or the Intercept — than I am in the right, although there’s plenty of that, too, starting with the Federalist and including a broad array of conservative thinktank media.

Minorstream publications and sites tend to do little real reporting, but instead concentrate on “analysis,” usually starting from an unambiguous ideological grid. So, if a leftist publication takes the worldview that you can’t honestly situate any reportable events without recognising the need for a socialist revolution, then that makes all mainstream media, even liberal publications, highly suspect as mere mouthpiecces for the going capitalist and/or neoliberal society on which MSM is supposed to be critically reporting.  As becomes quickly obvious, sorting out what’s what in terms of the spectrum and/or political categories is not an easy job, and is particularly difficult for ordinary citizens who are not “news junkies” or have not had the benefit of “media literacy” courses at universities.

All of the above is complicated by the current debate over truth, lies, “alternative facts” and “post-truths.” Rusbridger cites the philosopher Hannah Arendt to demonstrate that the problem is not as new as we think. In her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt wrote, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.” Rusbridger adds, “Nearly 70 years later many of us may be surprised to be asking the most basic question imaginable: how do you know if something is true or not?”

If that were the full extent of the problem, it might at least be possible to remedy it. But there’s a deeper and pervasive philosophical problem which has to do with a panoply of topics, including reality and its description, events and their interpretation, or  “objectivity” and what one prominent journalist, Carl Bernstein (of Watergate renown), likes to call “the best obtainable version of the truth.” That is, there’s something inherent in social reality that makes it hard to describe something merely “objectively.”

Take the example Rusbridger uses, Trump’s claim at a partisan rally that Sweden is in the midst of a rape crisis as a result of its immigration policies. How do you report that? Well, you could simply directly quote Trump’s claim and leave it at that. That is, take a “facticity” or “just the facts, m’am” approach. It’s a fact that Trump was in Florida at a rally in Feb. 2017, and he said such-and-such Many media consumers give the impression that that’s what they regard as “objective,” and anything beyond that constitutes a form of “bias.” Journalists contribute to the confusion when they insist they’re adhering to an ethos of simply “following the facts.”

But even if you get the facts right, the claim in this instance seems to cry out for clarification. Is it true that Sweden is in the midst of a rape crisis? And if so, is it caused by migrants? Is it affected by new standards for reporting cases of sexual assault? What’s the source of Trump’s assertion? If the report on Trump’s Swedish claim includes the information that Trump got the story from watching an unreliable right-wing TV program that featured a rather flakey self-proclaimed journalist making such a claim, is that relevant to the truth, or does such debunking of the claim constitute bias against the president?

The above example could be multiplied hundreds of times, and I’ve only scratched the surface of potential problems. The still-current debate about whether the media “over-covered” the two-year investigation of President Trump and his associates on charges of colluding with the Russians in the 2016 election, and whether the president then attempted to “obstruct” the investigation, is a case in point. Did the mere fact that some of MSM devoted extended attention to almost every detail of the case in itself constitute a form of egregious bias? Or is there a “swamp” of corruption that characterizes the Trump administration and thus justifies the microscopic attention and inevitable speculation? I won’t attempt to settle that query here, but instead content myself with a general observation. Indeed it looks like any description of anything is inseparable from interpretation and analysis. And for some media readers, any interpretation seems to constitute bias (unless, that is, it confirms the reader’s own bias).

At the same time, the situation is not epistemologically hopeless. It’s possible to establish criteria to distinguish between better and worse descriptions, interpretations, and analyses. This isn’t the place for a prolonged discussion of those criteria. It’s enough to posit that such standards are possible and available as a basis for comparative judgment. And, of course, a notion of facts may well be a cornerstone of such a model. But something like such an evaluative model is necessary to my being able to argue, as I do, that much of mainstream media is pretty good at presenting a substantiated version of what’s going on in the world.

That judgment holds good, irrespective of the given medium’s political positions. Often, I’ll find myself disagreeing with a good deal of a publication’s editorial stances, while nonetheless appreciating its reliability, depth, and/or soundness of reportorial practices. Most of the available alternatives to mainstream media – whether ideologically committed minorstream media within our society or the state-controlled media of authoritarian foreign states —  strike me as clearly inferior to the comprehensiveness, depth of background materials, and ethical commitments of say, an MSM flagship publication like the New York Times. Yes, it’s a mild-mannered liberal vehicle; yes, it makes mistakes (which it more promptly corrects than most governments or corporations); yes, its grand world view is a bit wishy-washy compared with more self-confdent leftist and rightist outlets – but, on the whole, it provides a more accurate portrait of reality, more guardianship of the truth, than most of its would-be competitors.

For people who don’t spend much time thinking about such matters, their resentment and distrust of the media and their sense of its bias(es) is relatively understandable. Naturally, that doesn’t necessarily make them right in their judgment. Indeed, I tend to disagree with many such judgments, and attribute them to ignorance, prejudice, or simply a difference of opinion (informed or otherwise).

I’m also resistant to claims reliant on self-determined subjectivity. If, as beauty is said to be, truth is also to be found in the eye of the beholder, then we have to ask, how good are those “eyes” in terms of education, acuity of vision, and interpretive skills? In the end, I think there has to be some degree of reasoned and potentially agreed-upon methods leading to the criteria by which we evaluate representations of reality. It’s true that some reputable philosophers have denied that the establishment of such mutual (or neutral) grounds for judgment is possible. I think I prefer a notion of “guardians of the truth,” however imperfect those guardians may occasionally be.

 

 

 

 

 

Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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