Journalism, Fake News, and The First Amendment

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By Joshua C. Shurley, Ph.D.

Walter Lippman, considered by some to be the “father of modern journalism” famously wrote that “there can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” Given our current political climate, rife with talk of “fake news,” Lippman’s words certainly ring true and underscore the dire need to rediscover these lie-detecting means in order to secure our jeopardized liberty. Regrettably, however, a recent opportunity to do just that in our community has been missed.

On February 9th, with this in mind, I attended a panel discussion at Fresno State entitled “Journalism, Fake News, and The First Amendment,” which is part of the Leon S. Peters Ethic series of lectures. The panel consisted of Fresno Bee executive editor Jim Boren, Valley Public Radio director Joe Moore, and a pair of Fresno State journalism professors: Tim Therkelsen and Faith Sidlow (the latter of whom is a long-time Valley broadcast news anchor). I looked forward to this event, which framed current focus on the mass media’s role in political discourse as an ethics problem. Apparently, I was not alone.

To say it was well-attended would be an understatement. The Alice Peters Auditorium was a packed house, with standing room only in the aisles and folks squeezed into capacity. What followed was timely and interesting, and the panelists fielded some good questions from the audience, given the constraints of time and crowd size.

Nevertheless, I left feeling that an opportunity had been missed to critically engage in a much-needed discussion of the Fourth Estate. At the heart of their presentations and the discussion that followed was both a call for readers to scrutinize media sources for false reporting as well as a robust defense of professional journalism in an era of increasing skepticism and hostility toward “mainstream” press outlets.

The problem of “fake news” was discussed in two ways: First, websites that deliberately publish hoaxes and misinformation–often via social media in an effort to promote political falsehoods–in order to maximize web traffic and amplify their effect. Secondly, there are Donald Trump’s recent accusations of “fake news” as a pejorative label applied to media outlets who are critical of his administration, exposing what many views as a thin-skinned reflexivity characteristic of regimes in authoritarian states (along with his administration’s use of “alternative facts”). Both of these are certainly prescient, but a third and crucial form of “fake news” was glaringly ignored.

Indeed, the term has begun to be used as a propaganda meme to discredit information sometimes provided by alternative media sources when this information speaks inconvenient truths to power. None of this necessarily requires intentional deception by journalists and editors. Rather, it indicates what Chomsky and Herman long ago identified as the “filtering effect” of mainstream news, whereby through a set of internalized assumptions and reliance on market forces, forms of self-censorship occur that frame issues in a manner that never challenges those underlying assumptions that reinforce government power.

For example, this has been the case regarding information provided by WikiLeaks concerning the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and emails revealing the favoring of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primary. This issue became obscured when the overarching narrative reported on by mainstream outlets became the possibility of Russian involvement in the leaks, with little or no mention that the authenticity of the emails was never in question. The “story” thus became the question of Russian hacking of the DNC, rather than the inconvenient truths about the subversion of democracy that were revealed (not to mention the fact that the evidence of Russia’s role is dubious at best).

Another example is mainstream narrative involving the ongoing conflict in Syria. Again, Russia has been an easy scapegoat which serves to obfuscate US-directed activities that have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions more displaced. Journalists such as Eva Bartlett and others have illustrated that the over-simplified narrative of US involvement in Syria presented by mainstream news outlets is duplicitous at best. Unlike Russia and Iran, who have been invited to deploy forces by Syria’s government, US-supported forces have invaded a sovereign country and, contrary to international law, have embarked on a regime change operation which some may say has become a standard approach by Washington.

All of this while framing these events as a “good vs. evil” struggle between a despot (Assad) and (presumably freedom-loving) so-called “moderate rebels.” In addition, there is the inconvenient fact that the so-called “moderate rebels” are largely the same radical jihadist elements that the US violently opposes in other contexts, and who are for the most part foreign to Syria.

Again, all of this is propped up by corporate-owned media reliant on dubious “sources” that, upon scrutiny, have little or no credibility. The few journalists who have been on the ground in places like eastern Aleppo reveal a much more complex picture of the conflict, one wrapped up in the “transformative” political and economic aspirations of elites in Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, and Jerusalem, among others. Sovereignty and refugees be damned.

Given this current situation and the not-so-distant history of media’s role in regime change operations in Libya and Iraq, a discussion of journalism ethics that fails to acknowledge that any of this may be a problem seems incomplete at best, and an ethical failure at worst.

In this vein, the role of professional journalism is all too often relegated to what Chomsky has described as being mere “stenographers of power.” To emphasize this point, it was the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels who described the press as “a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

If we are to avoid such pitfalls, we must be as willing to confront inconvenient facts that challenge the status quo as we are willing to confront the more grotesque displays of self-aggrandizing, reality-TV sensationalism masked as an executive policy that so many are currently preoccupied with.

Walter Lippman also said that “what a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truth from its errors.” Are we at the point where journalism’s role as speaking truth to power is little more than an exercise in myth-making? Only time will tell.

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Dr. Joshua C. Shurley teaches political science at Clovis Community College. He can be reached at joshuashurley@gmail.com