Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Finding truth in the ministry of lies

Watching the initial press conferences of the Administration of United States President Donald Trump, it is easy to see the unique challenges for journalists as they attempt to cover the White House over the next few years.

Never before have they had to deal with being openly and brazenly lied to; never have they faced situations where they are told that black equals white and every colour in between.

This became all too clear during the harangue handed out by Trump’s new Press Secretary, Sean Spicer over the media’s coverage of the inauguration, accusing journalists of deliberately using pictures that made it seem there was a low public attendance at the ceremonies when in fact he claimed they were the best attended, most watched in presidential history — in Washington, the rest of the US and around the world.

After then accusing the press of making up attendance figures because no attendances had been released, he then offered a string of ‘official’ figures comparing Trump’s inauguration with that of the swearing in ceremony at former President Barack Obama’s second term in 2013.

That the media can cope with — the inaugurations of second term presidents are rarely as well attended as their first — it’s a twisting of the figures to suit an argument that can easily be rebuffed. But how to handle the outright, straight-faced porky that this was the biggest, most magnificent show Washington had ever seen without degenerating into a ‘yes it is – no it isn’t’ squabble that benefits no one?

Director of the Ethical Journalism Network, Aidan White says that journalism is facing a crisis with the rise of racism, misinformation and political propaganda that were features of the US Presidential campaign and the British vote to leave the European Union.

However, he remains optimistic that “although there may be more rumour, speculation, fake news and misinformation as the information market moves online, there is a growing movement to strengthen the craft of journalism”.

That is fine as long as there are people still prepared to listen and watch, but what if the genuine practitioners of ethical journalism are buried under a flood of State sponsored propaganda and falsehoods? Social media has given governments the platforms they need to by-pass traditional journalism, and if governments turn rogue with all the resources they have at their disposal, what can individuals do against them?

Perhaps one of the most worrying developments in the past few days is the threat that the White House Press Corps be relocated to a larger venue where more journalists, bloggers and tweeters could also be accommodated.

No doubt the Trump people would claim that they were democratising Administration coverage, taking it away from a small, exclusive elite and opening it to a wider selection of media more relevant to today’s world. In fact it would be a very effective muddying of the waters, further confusing the public about who and what to believe.

Facing what one member of the Press Corps called “a hellscape of lies and distorted realities”, the only hope is for professional journalists to close ranks — the early signs are not good.

When Trump used a press conference to accuse CNN of publishing fake news and refused to take a question from its representative who was then threatened with eviction, no colleagues came to his aid. A mass walk-out might have been effective, but it did not happen.

This was a victory over the free press that President Vladimir Putin of Russia would have applauded: Isolate your critics, reward those who promise to be compliant.

Despite some signs of disquiet, Trump can probably count on both Houses of a Republican-dominated Congress to go along with the new Washington regime. He will quickly ensure a majority of like-minded judges in the Supreme Court.

For ethical, professional journalists determined to seek out and report good old-fashioned truth, the capital is going to be a lonely, even hostile place.  

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