There is a spectre hanging over North America that demands our attention.
It isn’t the pending Trump regime, although it does require the most intense scrutiny. Nor is it the unlashing of white supremacist and anti-semitic intolerance, both of which should be faced down in every instance.
No, the spectre that should deeply concern us is the radical pressure on the quality and clear sightedness of news reporting, pressures coming from both inside and outside the profession.
Doubts were raised by many about the role the media played in the US election with, among many other failings, its headlining of the politically-motivated timing of James Comey’s comments about Clinton’s email server, and now the normalizing of Trumpist delusive rants about anything he chooses.
But the problems run deeper.
Emily Bazelon in her New York Times Magazine article Billionaires vs. the Press in the Era of Trump exposes the legal assaults underway in which ‘libel law can be a tool for revenge’ to punish media critics of right wing ideologies ‘or even destroy entire media outlets’ — a la Peter Thiel’s funding of various legal actions against Gawker.
The chilling effect on critical political reporting could be extreme.
Not enough is still also being done by social networks and the media about the prevalence of false news on social networks, whether the result of Russian hacking, Macedonian teenagers looking to make a quick buck, or the partisan dissembling of right-wing activists. Leading social networks have a responsibility to focus their algorithms less on whether content is shareable and more on whether its source and its truth can be validated.
And there are most recently the aggressive attempts to control media coverage of the Dakota Pipeline protests by local police bringing various charges against a reporter from Democracy Now (dismissed by a North Dakota judge) and preventing Unicorn Riot reporters from being at the protest.
As questions are raised about the steep decline in media truth finding in favour of uncritical headline-driven ‘newstainment’, journalists aren’t helping themselves, as Jay Rosen points out. He calls out the abasement of journalism into accusation-driven rather than evidence-driven reporting, examples being coverage of various Trump lies (millions of illegal voters; financier George Soros’ funding of anti-Trump protests)
If you are evidence-based you lead with the lack of evidence for explosive or insidious charges. That becomes the news. If you are accusation-driven, the news is that certain people are making charges. With the details we may learn that there’s no evidence, but the frame in which that discovery is made remains ‘he said, she said.’
There are many dangers and many problems and one evident, if incomplete, fix.
We have to turn elsewhere to find information, evidence and truth, and that may increasingly be our social networks. Instead of worrying about whether these networks are bubbles, we should use them to help uncover and proselytize accurate stories and fair and justified criticism.
And we should take note that ‘bubble’-based information sharing and discussion on social networks is not the principal enemy of well-formed thought. As Daniel Estrada argues in “You are your bubble. Stop worrying and learn to love it.”:
An attack on your filter is an attack on your identity and the freedom to construct it. The attack discourages participation in radical groups or activist events, or otherwise associating with any identity categories and political movements outside the mainstream, for fear of contributing to the problem of “the bubble”. The attack encourages moderation in one’s identity and presentation so as to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. In other words, attacking the filter bubble serves to reinforce the mainstream center of politics and to silence dissent.
The principal enemy is fakery, careless and irresponsible journalism and public mistrust of it, partisan messaging chicanery, and the terror tactics of right-wing billionaires.
The partial antidote is sharing the truth with others in networks.