The news business is in a sweat about fake news. The temperature has been rising since the November election of Donald Trump as President and it went febrile on February 2 when his press secretary Kellyanne Conway claimed the president’s restrictions on immigration announced on January 27 were justified by the massacre carried out by Iraqi refugees (some time ago) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. There had never been a massacre but she got away with saying it on the Chris Matthews MSNBC news show – and that has news critics apoplectic. How could mainstream journalism, which has to include presidential press secretaries, have fallen into such an embarrassing state?
The idea of ‘fake news’ became a talking point during the fall election season when stories such as Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a pizza-house pedophilia ring circulated. Few, if any, legitimate news organizations bought into that story, or into post-election White House claims that the president lost the popular vote because of voter fraud.
Going back several years, though, the press and television news organizations have compiled a troubling record of reporting stories that were false.
Only now, however, with untruths flying out of the White House like chaff from a speeding grain truck do establishment figures appear worried about the declining credibility of pillars-of-information-exchange like press secretaries and the journalists to whom they speak.
Writing on the front page of the February 6 New York Times Business Section, news-watcher Jim Rutenberg noted that ‘blowback over the whole Bowling Green yarn’ had effects on the reputation of journalism that could not be reversed, and then called-out other recent stories that put strain the reliability of news reporting.
Rutenberg then reported that sales of George Orwell’s book 1984, published in 1949, and was back on bestseller lists. In that novel, Orwell had warned of the power of big government to control its people by controlling the information they got. The fictitious head of Orwell’s totalitarian fantasy was Big Brother who employed information specialists to create false news stories and rewrite the history of the nation’s people. Big Brother’s objective was to build a permanent warfare state.
“Orwell’s classic seems all too familiar”, writes Rutenberg, capturing in the words of Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, “a world in which the government insists that reality is not something objective…”. And now, continues Rutenberg, Mr. Trump ‘renews those fears’.
Leaving the matter at that, however, misses what Rutenberg and others miss when they channel Orwell for an understanding of the current spate of ‘fake news’: It is nongovernmental institutions, private media and information technology companies which today make big-time profits off sales of the very technologies that Postman predicted (above) would undo people’s capacities to think.
The ‘enemy’, to sharpen the point, is not an Orwellian big government that generates false stories in order to control the populace, but a government that will not limit the power of private media companies to numb the electorate with the visual spectacles of televised sports, mindless sit-coms, and the addictive attractions of always-on handheld information devices; the enemy sits in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Seattle – not Washington, D.C.
Tellingly, news professionals are empodded in a solipsistic reality constructed of their own Twitter and Facebook feeds. That they even pay attention to Trump feeds, treating 140-character fragments as a press conference, is remarkable; that an otherwise obscure tweet exposed Press Secretary Conway’s faux pas is valorized as a social media triumph over conventional journalism, as Rotenberg does, is kind of tragic.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Fake News is Not New and Huxley, Not Orwell, is the Messenger’