A free, vigorous and sceptical press has long been considered the underpinning of a truly democratic form of government because, without a continuous stream of accurate factual information on current events, citizens cannot know whether the government they voted for is working well and in the best interests of their country and the world at large. Is the American press still doing its job? …..
….. by Paul D Kennedy
Democracy is about decision-making and delegation. One of the essentials of good decision-making is reliable information. If the people who make up a democracy are denied the quality of information their role as voters demands then they will be unable to decide to whom they should delegate the authority to govern them. When that happens, we no longer have a true democracy – one in which the public are sufficiently well-informed to exercise their will at election time.
The job of newspapers and news-broadcasters is, I firmly believe, to publish stories their editors find credible, based on solid evidence and sound judgment. I also believe that empirical investigation, carried out in a spirit of enquiry, is the only way to ensure that what is reported as news is properly rooted in reality.
American journalism has a history of publishing fake stories and fantastic rumours. The prime example is William Randolf Hearst, the founder of ‘yellow journalism’, whose newspapers, after the sinking of the US battleship Maine in 1898 in Havana, Cuba, used faked scoops and fabricated interviews with unnamed government officials to drum up public support in the USA for a war against Spain. This vile sort of journalistic behaviour is supposed to be a thing of the past and, in the main, it is.
What is happening today is that the fake stories and fabricated interviews are being orchestrated by the government, not by the press. However the media tends to feed these to the public without further checking. That healthy scepticism, which is an essential feature of an investigative press, has been withering since Bush Junior came to power.
The US government perverts the flow of hard facts in a variety of ways. It uses spin-masters to slant news to a light favourable to the government. Friendly reporters are planted with the right questions. Media advisors create photo-opportunities (viz Bush’s victory strut on a destroyer) designed to sway a gullible public and reinforce whatever message the government wants to push. Fictional heroes (such as Private Jessica Lynch) are packaged for the press and those who point out the inconsistencies in these tales are branded as traitors.
The current US government also manipulates intelligence to support the policies it wants to pursue. Bush’s stated reasons for invading Iraq – those famous WMDs and links with Al-Qaeda – were never remotely true, which was even evident at that time. Yet the editors of most serious American newspapers published the administration’s rationale for war prominently on their front pages and buried any contradictory stories, if they reported them at all, as small items deep inside their papers.
All these disinformation tactics – spin, planted questions, photo-opportunities, fictional heroes and the manipulation of intelligence, along with PR men posing as commentators – have been collectively labelled by the comedian Jon Stewart as infoganda, a rather apt term.
The success of infoganda requires the suspension of scepticism by journalists. It can only succeed when news men fail to probe for the evidence that should support a story. So what has happened within the most reputable news organizations in the world, famous for their fact-checking reliability, to make them partners in infoganda?
It’s difficult to say. Perhaps, in the post-9/11 mood, American newsmen were scared to display their traditional scepticism lest they be accused of a lack of patriotism. Whatever the cause, the prevalence of infoganda is, I feel, very much due to the obsession American journalism has with access to quotes.
Journalists in America are expected to quote from authoritative sources to back up their stories. Getting quotes depends on having access to those in power. Publish a wrongly slanted story and you’ll be denied that access. To ensure a steady supply of quotes a journalist has to behave, ie take those quotes at face-value and write accordingly.
Getting a quote is not a bad thing in itself. Discovering the facts, views and opinions from those who are in the know is partly what journalism is all about. But it is a bad thing if reporters accept what they are being told without out further enquiry, which gets even worse if what they are being told are lies. Though reporters are obviously obliged to check the stories they are given, they don’t seem to do so nowadays. As a result American journalism is no better than its sources, hence the success of infoganda.
But the scepticism that is a sine qua non of hard-fact news reporting is not really dead. However its locus has shifted – from the journalists to the people! During the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, just over a year ago, the Bush government kept up a stream of infoganda designed to reassure the American public that it (the government) was on top of things. But they were soon caught out, not by the press, but by the millions of text messages that were emanating from New Orleans. I received a few myself and found them hard to reconcile with what was coming out of the White House and being reported in American newspapers.
Since then I have noticed an increasing scepticism among Americans about what they read in the newspapers and hear on TV news programmes. A straw poll I conducted recently suggests strongly that ordinary educated Americans are becoming increasingly doubtful about the news they receive. If you can’t trust the news, how can judge what your government is doing or saying?
This is very serious. If Iraq’s WMDs were a fake story based on deliberately falsified intelligence, why believe Bush now when he says that Iran is developing nuclear weapons? Infoganda is choking informed public opinion as surely as weeds will, if unchecked, smother a flower bed.
The solution, of course, is for the American news organizations to clean house and return to being the free, vigorous and sceptical press they should be and which we all expect them to be. If this trend from hard news reporting to infoganda continues – if scepticism continues to wither and infoganda to thrive unchecked – then, in my view, the writing is on the wall for American democracy. Not a happy thought after Iftar, perhaps, but one that merits serious discussion.
© Paul D Kennedy, October 2006
This article was first published in the Arab Times in the After Iftar section during Ramadan 2006. Muslims fast throughout the day during Ramadan and Iftar is the time just after sunset when the fast is broken. The hour or two following Iftar is considered by Muslims to be a time that should be set aside for reflection.