Now it’s official: The Russians have influenced the American presidential elections. Scandal. Horror. An avalanche of editorials.
The examples of fallacious articles would fill an encyclopedia. On Facebook, the hoax that Pope Francis had voiced his support for Trump had a million shares. The one that Obama wanted to ban the pledge of allegiance to the American flag had more than 2 million, between comments and shares. The one that claimed an FBI agent found murdered was suspected of having leaked the Clinton emails had half a million likes.
So the commentators are coming out: “Cleanse the web!” “We check, we verify!” “To arms, citizens!”
One wonders, however, why the defenders of quality journalism have not climbed the barricades in past years after reading headlines like “Abraham Lincoln was a woman!” (Weekly World News) or “Hillary has six months to live” (National Enquirer). They’re called supermarket tabloids because they’re sold at checkout counters and not newsstands, but they’ve influenced American culture and politics for at least 20 years. The infamous Lewinsky case, which led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, was born out of a tabloid gossip site, The Drudge Report, and then made its way to “serious” newspapers.
As in 2016 with Trump, in 1998 there was no watertight bulkhead between so-called quality journalism and the inventors of internet fabrications, and the reason was very simple: The same large newspapers had chosen to compete on the gossip market. Even then the speed with which the news appeared online had remodeled the media, forcing them to operate at a frantic pace and unifying the market, funneling websites, national newspapers, local newspapers, weeklies, radio stations and television networks into a single informative cauldron.
Everyone was together in furious competition: The Washington Post and The New York Times in the same pit as Breitbart and Fox News. If the internet has changed the rules of the game, this definitely did not happened suddenly. Direct communication in the form of blogs and improvised sites was already able to skip the mediation of journalists 20 years ago. Obviously, with Facebook and Twitter this all became easier and faster.
But it’s not the fault of Putin or a Romanian hacker. The problem lies in the structural weaknesses of American journalism. The first is that the publishing industry, in a capitalistic society, exists to profit, or at least not to suffer excessive losses. And journalists, before their role as Paladins of information, are humble employees who have to do what the publisher and the editor decide.
If the government wants to give credence to lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, it will be neither the young reporter nor the prestigious columnist to turn the tables. Mainstream journalism lives in an incestuous relationship with political power for the sake of industrial efficiency, not for servilism or malice: The Washington Post and The New York Times can’t function if government sources do not cooperate. The Huffington Post understood that. After attacking Trump for months on end, after his election it abruptly changed face.
This situation is the basis for another seemingly unfathomable phenomenon: the unpopularity of newspapers and journalists. When Trump tweets against the “dishonest media,” he touches a resonant chord of public opinion, which in 1998 believed that newspapers “dramatize some stories just to sell more” (85 percent of respondents) and that “journalists make up all or part of what they write” (66 percent). The mistrust of the mainstream press has ancient roots in rural America, which reporters ignored. And the success of alternative sites, including those that churn out lies in bursts, is the result of a deep resentment against the establishment.
The third weakness of American journalism is its obsession with political statements. The more prominently displayed, analyzed and exploited, the more mileage they get. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” said Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, in February, about the Trump-dominated presidential race.
As an entertainer, Trump understood that every day he needed to give the TV networks what they wanted and increase the dose. Those statements that to journalists appeared senseless proposals (bill Mexico for the border wall) were in fact skilled provocations to keep up the attention and capture the distracted or marginal spectator.
Evening news programs devoted exactly zero minutes to stories on poverty, climate change or drug addiction in 2016, according to the television programming observer Andrew Tyndall, quoted by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. The great American press was literally hypnotized by Trump, his accusations, his antics, his threats.
Now everyone is wondering what to do, how to prevent election campaigns from again becoming a festival of exaggerations and lies. Unfortunately there are no simple solutions, especially in a society as politically divided and antagonistic as America’s.
There will be alterations to Facebook’s algorithms. But those who want to believe that Obama was born in Kenya or that Clinton protects pedophiles will continue to believe it, especially if Rupert Murdoch’s reputable Fox News and Wall Street Journal continue to throw the stone and hide the hand.