- Anson Stevens-Bollen
Seemingly, in 2017, we have reached a new milestone—the year in which an episode of The Simpsons played out in real life. Foreshadowed in a TV cartoon, the black comedy of events that propelled Donald Trump into the White House is now chronicled in this story devoted to Junk Food News—the so-called "fake news" that squeezed into the places that should have been filled with legitimate, essential information.
Last year, Project Censored—the ongoing journalistic mission of journalists Mickey Huff and Nolan Higdon, legions of student interns, writers and editors—spent a considerable amount of ink on the emerging youth movement which produced formidable activists in their own right and undergirded the passion that spurred Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign during the presidential primaries and made the movement to abolish the use of superdelegates in the days after the election about more than just sour grapes.
This past election cycle did something: It pushed in a type of post-truth dystopia. Civilization, in seems, has become more and more maudlin and hysterical—especially under democracy. If the mainstream media news cycles are to be trusted, we've all degenerated into a mere combat of crazies; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins—most of them imaginary.
Since the advent of television, Americans receive a great deal of their information through broadcast news, sitcoms and dramas. But this form can't articulate complex ideas the way print can. Shortcomings of television dilute politics and religion. And "news of the day" becomes a packaged commodity. The result is that quality information becomes secondary to entertainment value.
It is against this backdrop that we itemize examples of Junk Food News distracting Americans, ranging from Trump's refusal to attend the the White House Correspondents Dinner to the breathless reporting on Trump's every tweet.
Huff and former Project Censored director Peter Phillips argued in 2010 that the U.S. was facing a Truth Emergency. They assert that "in the United States today, the rift between reality and reporting has reached its end. There is no longer a mere credibility gap, but rather a literal Truth Emergency ... This is a culmination of the failures of the Fourth Estate to act as a truly free press."
In 2017, both men conclude that little has changed. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people is a notable example. This attack was used to justify Trump's order to fire of 59 Tomahawk missiles on a country torn by civil war.
Project Censored pushed back against the notion that critiquing the corporate press pushing the chemical weapon attack as tantamount to being pro-al-Assad.
Huff and Higdon wrote:
This is a complicated matter, to be sure, one that even sparks vivid disagreements among the anti-imperialist and the pacifist Left in the U.S. To question official narratives should not mean people are automatically pro-Assad—or pro-Putin, for that matter. More importantly, what does it mean to be pro-truth in a post-truth world, when the truth can be elusive, especially in an environment addled by propaganda coming from many sides?
They noted that the corporate press' involvement in news abuse regarding Syria was an attempt to build public support for a U.S. invasion, much like the second war in Iraq a decade earlier. This, Project Censored wrote, "Makes accurate reporting and publishing of diverse perspectives all the more crucial."
Huff and Higdon argue the countermeasure to news abuse and propaganda is an informed citizenry with strong critical-thinking skills. Project Censored actually goes a little further than that by saying that the level of required reasoning now goes beyond the critical thinking that simply evaluates information based on conformity with existing knowledge. Critical thinking now, Huff and Higdon argue, is one that can embrace perspectives at odds with "prevailing wisdom or personal views" based on evaluation of real facts.
As an example of why this form of education is necessary, they cited right-wing personality Glenn Beck and pseudo-historian David Barton who offered training camps to teach graduating high school students revisionist history. They used the words of Salon writer Amanda Marcotte to describe Beck and Barton's historical narrative, saying that it is "one that valorizes straight white men as humanity's natural leaders and grants Christian fundamentalism a centrality to American history that it does not, in reality, have." Marcotte also noted that, "in Barton's history, the founding fathers' idea of government was rooted in fundamentalist Christianity, instead of enlightenment philosophy, and the contributions of people of color are minimized in service of centering Christian white men as the righteous shepherds guiding everyone else."
Huff and Higdon also argue that schools should teach media literacy as core curriculum to help fight against news abuse and fake news. They contend the U.S. education system has drifted to the same for-profit model of information dissemination as the mass media, yielding many of the same results.
Huff and Higdon cite critical theory scholar Henry Giroux, who says that for-profit education models emphasize individual responsibility for problems created by systemic failures:
"The market-driven discourse in higher education, including the corporatization of education that privileges administrators over faculty [who became low-paid workers while students are seen as customers], has outlawed or marginalized those faculty who do talk about critiquing the system rather than teach students to accept it and work with it."
Giroux concludes that a "democracy cannot exist without informed citizens and public spheres and educational apparatuses that uphold standards of truth, honesty, evidence, facts and justice. Under Trump, disinformation masquerading as news ... has become a weapon for legitimating ignorance and civic illiteracy."
To combat this, Giroux is quoted:
Artists, educators, young people, journalists and others need to make the virtue of truth-telling visible again. We need to connect democracy with a notion of truth-telling and consciousness that is on the side of economic and political justice, and democracy itself. If we are going to fight for and with the most marginalized people, there must be a broader understanding of their needs. We need to create narratives and platforms in which those who have been deemed disposable can identify themselves and the conditions through which power and oppression bear down on their lives.
Huff and Higdon have also recounted the brief history of the term "fake news," since Trump was "electored" president. The authors say that during one week in January 2017, the trend of people researching the term "fake news" on Google jumped 100 fold above pre-election levels. Trump and his supporters denounced any critiques of the new administration, such as CNN for questioning the validity of his statements, as fake news.
But, Trump and his underlings were not alone in labeling inconvenient truths as fake news. The Democratic National Committee was also guilty, as it sought to explain how Clinton lost to a Cheeto. Throughout the year, the partisan practice of labeling inconvenient truths as fake news undermined credible journalism while distracting the public from the barrage of actual fake news flooding our global society.
This was reminiscent of a Ron Suskind story in The New York Times Magazine more than a decade ago in which the phrase "reality based community" was used by an aide in the George W. Bush administration. The term was used to denigrate a critic of the administration's policies who were basing judgments on facts.
In it, the author wrote:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality based community, which he defined as people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." [...] "that's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
The source was later revealed to be political operative and Bush administration advisor, Karl Rove, but he has denied it.
- Enrique Limón
- A protester takes to the SLC streets on Jan. 23, 2017 as part of the nationwide Women's March.
Huff and Higdon note the internet's promise of delivering endless information to circumvent a post-truth world has not succeeded in producing a well-informed populace. Instead, the inflation of spurious information coupled with an education system that does not teach critical media literacy to students, and does not show them how to navigate and participate in the digital world, has resulted in a dystopia of falsehoods that are now referred to as "alternative facts."
This post-truth environment, they argue, gave rise to a term defined as an outright lie that is introduced and then used as evidence to support a desired conclusion.
Some notable examples:
• Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's claiming three times that a terror attack occurred in Atlanta, Ga.
• U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson claiming that African American slaves were immigrants who worked hard and found success in America, without socio-economic relevancy or historical context.
• The Trump administration's claim that the resistance to their repeal and replace Obamacare were paid protesters.
The ability to embrace dissonant facts is a skill set needed now more than ever, when inconvenient truths are simply dismissed as fake news.
This groundwork established, let's shift to the Democratic National Convention and the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
From the start, Project Censored made the argument that the Russian hacking narrative, propagated by the corporate media invested in Clinton's bid for the White House, is an example of an alternative fact designed to deflect attention away from Clinton's deficiencies as a candidate.
Huff and Higdon cite the Washington Post and the website PropOrNot that were purported to have uncovered the media outlets that served as dupes of Russian hackers with a series of algorithms designed to analyze outlets' web content. The Washington Post reprinted a list created by PropOrNot. Under threat of lawsuits, they published a partial retraction.
The question is whether Russian interference had a direct, demonstrable impact on Clinton losing the election. The answer has been a resounding "no," regardless of the steady drip of leaks regarding the alleged collusion of Trump's campaign with the Russian government. The fact remains, Clinton with help from the Democratic National Committee, lost to a candidate who should not have had any chance of winning.
Huff and Higdon say fact-checking would not be enough to counter the fake news epidemic, as fake news is not the only threat. There are blacklists, like the one used by sites like PropOrNot that include legitimate journalistic outlets as fake news and the passage of legislation that literally bans the media from lying. The pair notes the corporate press has assisted in creating some of these new threats, such as the weaponizing of fake news. They also acknowledge the daunting task of making these times and nation more hospitable to a more free and democratic place. Highlighting this, they write:
...the failures of the corporate media and education system have already contributed to the current post-truth environment by creating nothing short of an epistemological crisis. This has proven to be detrimental to our democratic process and an affront to the First Amendment rights of the American people. Creating the better world we envision will not depend on rewriting recent history to suit our purposes or flatter our illusions, but rather will depend on creating an ever more democratic, diverse, and critical free press.
What does the future hold? We have three more years with Trump at the helm, barring impeachment or another catastrophe befalling this country. Without some sort of progress on building critical media literacy and if there's a hell below, like Curtis Mayfield said, "We all going to go."
Terelle Jerricks is managing editor of Random Lengths News.