There are few things politicians and journalists like more than posing as paragons of virtue. People in other lines of work may be prone to think that far too many of them are scoundrels who would do just about anything to win more votes or attract more readers, but the targets of such slurs have always attributed them to ignorance, envy or ideological prejudice. Politicians brush them off by warning that without their guidance society would quickly descend into anarchy, fall into the hands of a thuggish dictator, or both, while journalists say, with a weary smile, that those who accuse them of being up to no good really ought to distinguish between the admittedly dodgy yellow press and respectable publications like the ones they work for.
Right now politicians and journalists are in a very sour mood for very good reasons. Politicians are jittery because the ongoing technological revolution has made it far easier for outsiders, whether celebrities, like Donald Trump, or unknowns, like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez – the young lady from New York with trenchantly leftist opinions who is currently wowing the Democrats – to come from nowhere and defeat hardened veterans in elections. It is also fast liquidating what was, until very recently, a very powerful journalistic establishment that appeared destined to play an increasingly influential role in political, economic and cultural affairs.
The rise of “social media” has provided defenders of the old order with a chance to tell the world they are defending truth in the war to the death it is waging against purveyors of “fake news,” among them that sinister Russian Vladimir Putin, the former spy-master some seem to believe has almost magical powers; thanks to them, they tell us, he managed to install Trump in the White House and since then has been manipulating him like a puppet. What is more, Putin did all this with a tiny fraction of the vast amount of money that was spent by Hillary Clinton’s election campaign team.
“Fake news” has been with us for thousands of years and there has never been a shortage of politicians willing to make good use of it, often with the help of imaginative propagandists. After journalism more or less as we know it came into being in the late 16th century, its practitioners happily joined in the fun. The outrageously venal behaviour of the ambitious hacks Honoré de Balzac described in his novel Illusions Perdues (“Lost Illusions”) of 1843 remained fairly typical for generations to come not only in France but in most, perhaps all, other countries. To keep friendly journalists on side, political organisations soon set up “reptile funds” though – as Humbert Wolfe reminded people back in the 1920s –payments in hard cash were not always necessary because: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”
In the United States, Great Britain, Argentina and elsewhere, politicians and representatives of “the mainstream media,” by which is meant old-fashioned print ones, are currently doing their utmost to stamp out the “fake news” they say is getting spewed out by the Internet. They insist that, unlike their versions of events, it poses a mortal threat to democracy. To get at it, they are putting pressure on the bosses of gigantic companies like Google and Facebook. Alarmed by what is happening, and fearing they could lose billions of dollars as a result, Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of them swear they too are determined to stop those malevolent Russians from using their networks to brainwash credulous Westerners.
The furious row that is now raging over “fake news” is due only in part to the belief among progressives or “liberals” that – had it not been for all those electronically delivered lies – Trump would never have managed to win the US presidency and Europe would not be seeing the rise of a number of, to their mind, equally loathsome “far right” antiestablishment movements.
Even worse, from the point of view of traditional journalists, has been the harm done to their trade by the social media, which have deprived it of sources of income their newspapers and magazines had come to rely upon, forcing many to close down or resign themselves to a shadowy online existence in cyberspace. Thanks to the tectonic shift that has already shaken up the news business and is likely to keep setting off strong aftershocks for some time to come, hundreds of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Can “social media” fill the gap that is being left by the demise of once thriving news outlets and the slimming down of others? There is no reason to think so.
While it may be true that, on the whole, major newspapers and magazines that have been around for many decades are far more trustworthy and are able to dig much deeper than whatever you may find on Facebook or YouTube, efforts to persuade people to rely exclusively on them for hard news and serious analysis of what is going on are unlikely to have much effect.
There is no way even the best and most prestigious of the old guard can overcome the suspicion that they are biased in favour of causes many, perhaps a majority, are opposed to. They all have their political agendas and, like the social media upstarts they are determined to discredit, they have no qualms when it comes to giving prominence to what they think is important and overlooking facts that strike them as inconvenient.
Those who see journalism as a business think newspapers should move with the times, as it were, and change the views they espouse if they find that fewer people are buying their product. Some have always been willing to do so, but others are reluctant to give an inch. Such diehards have seen the public mood turn away from them and toward “social media,” where dissidents of one kind and another are making names – and money – for themselves by launching virulent attacks on what they assume was yesterday’s progressive consensus.