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. The most spectacular of those were The New Republic’s gullible acceptance of editor Stephen Glass’s fabricated stories before finally firing him in 1998; CNN’s 1998 investigative report—later retracted as “unsupportable by the facts” and skewered as more fantasy than fact—that sarin nerve gas had been used on a 1970 covert raid by U.S. special forces to kill a group of GIs who had defected to the North Vietnamese on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; The New York Times 2003 admission that its reporter, Jason Blair, had filed numerous false stories before his editors owned-up to their own collusion in his duplicity and canned him.
Only now, however, with untruths flying out of the White House like chafe from a speeding grain truck—Trump charges that the press has underreported terror attacks and crime rates, both wrong—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.”
Rutenberg, it should be said, is one of many observers invoking Orwell as a way to frame what is going on in our own world of fake news. Their concern is valid and their attention to Orwell has merit but they’re pointing us in the wrong direction—maybe even 180 degrees off course.
Media critic Neil Postman took up the matters of information and power in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman was writing out of concern that an actor, Ronald Reagan, had become president. The televised debates leading to Reagan’s election had, said Postman, displaced oral engagement and discourse, the currency of debate, with “‘giving off impressions,’ which is what television does best.” Television, he said, is a medium in which credibility refers “only to the impressions of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness conveyed by the actor/reporter” (emphasis added). The problem, as Postman saw it, was not that television was a medium through which misinformation could be conveyed more easily—the Orwellian problem—but that it had so dumbed-down the American public that voters were more persuaded by the entertainment value of candidates’ appearances and presentations than what candidates actually had to say about the issues—the problem cited by Aldous Huxley years earlier.
Postman was, of course, counterpoising Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World with Orwell’s 1984. He found Huxley’s work to be more powerful for understanding a world filtered through electronic media that fractures information and ideas into soundbites, eroding thereby our ability to comprehend complex ideas and follow patterns of events across time. And without the permanence necessary for accountability, he thought the journalism of the electronic age had been lured into story lines more fit for entertaining an “audience” than enhancing public political agency. It was the degraded state of American journalism that he held responsible for yielding an electorate that put a grade-B actor into the White House. He wrote in the early 1980s with attention to television but with a premonition of the twitified “fake news” era that was to come.
Orwell, Postman pointed out, “warned that we will be overcome by externally opposed oppression”—the Big Brother boogie that Jim Rutenberg that worries us with—whereas Huxley, in Postman’s reading, sees that “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
Postman dichotomized Orwell and Huxley in other ways:
- Orwell feared those who would ban books; Huxley feared there would be no reason to ban books because nobody would want to read one.
- Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information and conceal the truth; Huxley feared the truth would be drown in a sea of irrelevance.
- Orwell feared we would become a captive culture; Huxley feared would become a trivial culture.
- In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain; in Brave New World, people are controlled by inflicting pleasure.
- Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us; Huxley feared that we will love what will ruin us.
Postman’s insight, ala Huxley, is that what is said is less important than the way it is said, the medium through which the information is conveyed; said another way, if a totalitarian power, Orwell’s Big Brother, can control the means through which information is delivered, the content is of little importance. Put in Postman’s terms, the problem is an epistemological one, not informational.
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 populous, 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.
There is irony in the clichéd borrowing-on-Orwell responses of news reporters fumbling for what to say about “fake news.” Newspapers and television news broadcasters have for years provided product-placement furniture for every new piece of information technology, hard or software, coming to market. Many of us saw links to online sources embedded in New York Times stories first—having then to figure out what they were for; reporters and celebrities were speaking of Twitter well before the IT elites on my campus knew what it was.
Tellingly, news professionals are impodded 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.
Neil Postman ended the preface to his 1985 book with a dedication to “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” Oh, if he could write now of journalists pointing fingers at Big Government for fake news while comfortably pleasuring themselves with the tools of their own destruction!