(in expanding on the 4th estate)
Historically, the press is one of the pillars of American democracy. Known as the “Fourth Estate”, the notion of journalism as the fourth leg of the table stems from Britain in the late 1700’s, but it fit nicely with the nascent American experiment as well, situating a free press alongside the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches of government. Is that overstating it? Perhaps. But the free press has long been identified as one of the forces that ensures good governance and provides a voice for the people. The founding fathers knew that if governments could suppress news or opinions they didn’t agree with, it would stifle democracy itself. In codifying the freedom of the press in the First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson said “our freedom depends on (it).”
(expanding on the use of twitter)
It was a lesson that Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, would learn well. Trump himself has said that he uses Twitter to escape the filter of the media. In doing so, he is able to send a message, free of context and in an environment in which he is unable to be questioned about his meaning or intent. The media is left to speculate about what he may or may not mean, allowing him to shape the message later. He is able, essentially, to repeatedly float a trial balloon of his own ideas and “correct” the record as he sees fit. Trump told Business Insider in an interview from January 16, “I thought I’d do less of it, but I’m covered so dishonestly by the press … I can go bing bing bing and I just keep going and they put it on and as soon as I tweet it out … I find it very accurate … they can’t do much when you tweet it…” The lack of context and accountability (at least in real time) is one of the primary paradigm shifts in the way this President has chosen to communicate with the American public. Currently, Trump owns one of the 50 most followed Twitter handles in the world. Barack Obama, by comparison, has more than three times the number of followers Trump has (84m to 25m) according to twittercounter.com. But it’s not the size of the megaphone; it’s how you use it. Trump has sent more tweets than all but a handful of people. The impact has been enormous. Behind the doors of newsrooms all over the country, rundowns are altered and leads are changed whenever the President sends out a tweet. Due to the need for the newest angle on any given story, a tweet at 8:30 inevitably changes your lead at 9. In some cases, it can become the lead at 9. On the morning of February 15, starting just before 4 am ET, President Trump sent out a series of tweets apparently inspired by questions raised about his links to Russia. Among other things, he slammed “fake news media” for “conspiracy theories and blind hatred”, then blamed the “Russian connection nonsense” on the Clinton campaign and also compared intelligence leaks to the environment in Russia itself (an odd comparison given his kind commentary about the government in Moscow). While the purpose of this thesis is not to provide a point and counterpoint of the contentious relationship between Trump and the media, I thought this example proved instructive. While the President offered no evidence or support for his claims that major news networks harbored “conspiracy theories and blind hatred” toward him, much of the media were more measured. For example, the article published by NBC News on that same day tempered the claims made by the primary sources for the day’s news. “Neither the Times article or the CNN report contains a smoking gun… Isolated, these seem to be unprecedented stories for a presidential campaign or incoming new administration. But taken together, they have the potential – and we have to stress that word right now – to be something even bigger.”
Were the original reports overblown? That is for others to judge. But if we look at the reports themselves, both CNN and the New York Times appeared to fulfill their journalistic duties by corroborating their stories with multiple sources.
The point here is its not just about the President targeting the news media – There are clear issues with how the media is reporting these stories. The New York Times and CNNeach had sources – in the case of Times, there were four administration officials. Not one was named. And while the NBC report insisted there was no smoking gun, it was 3 paragraphs down. And even though NBC’s political director Chuck Todd co-wrote that article, it contrasts wildly with the lead of his own show just hours later, when he said… “welcome to day 1 of what is arguably the biggest Presidential scandal involving a foreign government since Iran-Contra. Take a breath folks — and hunker down for a class 5 political hurricane.” So what do we have here? You can argue that there are simply no clear facts at all, and yet major networks are ascribing impeachable wrongdoing on the nascent Administration. Are the journalists living up to their own standards? Perhaps. But how is the public to know? And things go so fast now, it’s hard to filter this through your analytical brain anyway – its more about impression.
Again, you can make the argument that the sources, and therefore the publications themselves were incorrect, but to ascribe “blind hatred” alleges that the media went out of its way to purposefully construct knowingly false stories about the President and his Administration. Of course, just two days later, he put an exclamation point on that very claim, tweeting that the “fake news… is the enemy of the American people.” Five separate media outlets were also singled out in the tweet. One of which, the New York Times, labeled it a “striking escalation” and said it “echoed the language of autocrats who seek to minimize dissent.”
This is no small point. First of all, the message itself was extreme, prompting days of explanations and questions in the White House briefing room. But it also once again showed the power of Trump’s chosen medium, allowing him essentially a free shot at the media, delivered to the Twitter feeds of more than 25 million people. That is a powerful tool.
It is worth noting that the Trump admin has often railing against anonymous sources in reporting, although they have played on both sides of the ball on that one. When the White House wanted to push back against this story, they briefed reporters on the condition they not be named. And while the President accused the Washington Post of lying about its reliance on nine anonymous sources for their story about General Michael Flynn discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador (which formed a bit of the jumping off point for the story about Russian contact more generally), the Post was ultimately proven right and Flynn was forced to quit. In that example, the media dug around, found the facts and forced a change for the public good, bringing a questionable situation to light that otherwise would have remained hidden.
But it’s not just for Presidents. As Time Magazine put it in early February, “Technology has placed a communications revolution in nearly every American palm. When mixed with the economic frustrations of a globalized economy, this power unleashed a new populism. In the history of human beings, it has never been easier to organize groups, for good or ill, or to communicate both truth and lies, to question authority and to undermine the answers that authority gives.”
For traditional journalists, all of them simply makes the burden of doing their every day job heavier and more complicated. The speed of the news cycle and the sheer amount of information available to inform your reporting can overwhelm someone trying to verify the truth of the matter.
Nevertheless, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote shortly after the inauguration, “Journalists shouldn’t rise to the bait and decide to treat Trump as an enemy. Recalling at all times that their mission is truth-telling and holding public officials accountable, they should dig in, paying far more attention to actions than to sensational tweets or briefing-room lies — while still being willing to call out falsehoods clearly when they happen.
It is increasingly difficult to find those who don’t spin their side of the story.
A difficulty that we face as journalists comes when the mission of providing context appears to cast you in an ideological battle with your subject. For instance, current cable networks too often appear to have an agenda when it comes to covering Washington politics. A possible solution? Simply allow your subjects to speak for themselves, or report everything in a manner that minimizes anything other than fact as much as possible. The problem with this is that it presupposes that the public has at least a reasonable understanding of what is going on (in other words, context) as to be able to fit the current news in the broader pantheon of current events. In other words, if the President says that he is cutting off all trade with Iran, his comments constitute a fact that can be reported as such. But if the person who hears that doesn’t understand the geopolitical nature of America’s relationship with Iran, the Iranian regime’s reliance on its oil trade with this country, the dire economic circumstances that face the Iranian public, etc., then they may not have enough context to fully understand the story. But then, in providing the context for that (fictional) story, the entity reporting it fails to mention that all of this could lead Iran to take rash action, such as threatening an attack on a U.S. ally, in order to force the President to rethink his decision, would that constitute speculation or a possibility that could be the next stop along a reasonable and logical potential chain of events? It depends who you ask. In this scenario, supporters of the President could declare that it is a creation of those ideologically opposed to him. Supporters could argue the negative – that we simply don’t know what Iran would do and that speculation is useless and even defamatory. But do we do the public a disservice simply by saying we don’t know what would happen? Truth is that people in all positions speculate all the time. People who invest and budget money must do it constantly, trying to figure out a financial outcome based on limited evidence that only extends to the present and not the future. People who have experience and knowledge in certain areas =must= be relied upon to give their opinions on how current events may play out in the future. So therein lies another question. Whose opinions matter? Social media has put everyone’s opinions on an even playing field…. No one seems to have more gravitas or is given more respect than anybody else. But is that really how a democracy should work? Shouldn’t there be experts?
The point I’m trying to get to is that there has to be some way we can agree to distinguish fact from fiction, or as President Obama said before leaving office “we’ll keep talking past each other.” One way to get to that common baseline of facts as to admit that not everyone’s knowledge base is equal to everyone else’s and that facts should inherently hold more weight than opinions or beliefs. That means that if someone studying the number of immigrants crossing the border says the number has dropped over the past five years, you can’t give them the same amount of credibility as someone who believes that the number has actually gone up but fails to provide any factual evidence. Now, there are those that do things like this consciously and those that do it unconsciously. We saw throughout the presidential campaign, the rise of fake news – not as it attributes to the mainstream media – but the kind that even the actual people trafficking in it would describe as fake news. It’s the kind of insidious misinformation that gets into our twitter feeds or mailboxes and causes us to doubt what common sense tells us may be true and, in some cases, gives rise to whole new thought processes – all inspired by information that can typically be exposed as false. But not always.
Explore half-truths – how they get you to believe? http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/truthy-lies-surreal-truths/
(more to unpack responsibilities of citizen journalists)
On the other side of the coin, many so-called “citizen journalists” may not even realize their level of responsibility to the discourse happening around the country. Instead of trafficking in news, many may believe they are simply exchanging information; commenting on their environment and what is happening in the world. But the one who receives that message may not see it the same way. Again, due to a lack of context and oftentimes, the inability to track back to the original source of a tweet or a post, the intent of a message is lost. If it’s a sarcastic joke, a cynical aside or even a person blowing off steam, it may come across to others as a political position or a microcosm of a larger issue that needs to be addressed (and perhaps protested or exposed). But there is most definitely a level of responsibility inherent in being able to broadcast a message to thousands and by extension, even hundreds of thousands of people. It is the same level of responsibility one would expect someone to aspire to if they had the podium in a crowded theater. It is not the time to yell “fire”. But let us not ascribe intent to these people. Social media is still in its relative infancy as a medium and the broad reach and power that it wields is still becoming apparent. It is not hard to see examples on a regular basis of people positing pictures or messages online, only to find out later that the viral nature of their own words and actions can cost them their friends and their livelihoods. Many enjoy the ability to remain anonymous no matter what they post and thereby often avoid any kind of legal or ethical consequence for their information. As people who put information into cyberspace, we must reassess our responsibilities in doing so and as news consumers we must approach all information like this with eyes open.