Aside from the ‘Trump bump’ in stock-market indices, perhaps the most surprising development of the Trump administration’s first 100 days has been President Trump’s ability to turn the term ‘fake news’ against the established media organisations who invented it.
Up until the start of this year, just one word – ‘fake’ – was enough to trigger anxieties about news stories allegedly being fabricated or endorsed by the Trump camp. The idea was that made-up stories were influencing legions of Trump voters living a life of ‘post-truth’ – governed by gut instincts, impervious to the facts. In December 2016 and January 2017, widespread talk of ‘fake news’ allowed the political elite, which includes the commentariat alongside politicians and policymakers, to evade responsibility for its multiple failings and point the finger of blame at the supposedly gullible masses. But by February 2017, the word ‘fake’ had already come back to haunt the media establishment. In their repeated references to ‘fake news media’, Trump and his officials were using the term against the very people who had put it out there in the first place.
Is this the result of President Trump’s unerring instincts? Hardly. The climbdown this month on his healthcare bill has already shown that his instincts are far from infallible. But Trump’s re-deployment of ‘fake news’ to target the media establishment resonated with millions of people. Preferring Trump’s personal Twitter feed to the Washington hack pack, many Trump supporters regard ‘mainstream media’ as fake. They already know that professionally produced news cannot be wholly true because for years now it has ignored them.
These people have lost patience with the journalists who failed to report their story, or record their concerns, just as they have lost patience with the snooty politicians who labelled Trump voters ‘deplorables’. Both politicos and journos have been equally disdainful of the masses; now they are bracketed together in the mind’s eye of much of the electorate.
In this context, journalism is not only set to be ignored; its studied ignorance of the people it professed to serve has put it in the dock alongside other sections of the self-serving elite.
In the UK, at the EU referendum, and again at the US elections, the electorates on both sides of the Atlantic returned a damning verdict on the elite. On the American side, the sentence was immediate – the continuity camp was sent into exile. Whereas in Britain it is beginning to look as if sentencing has been deferred, allowing a modified version of the political elite to manage yet another episode in the long drawn-out history of imperial decline.
Meanwhile, in a less dramatic way, the popular verdict on the media establishment has been delivered not at the ballot box, but in the gradual act, undertaken by millions of people, of un-friending professional journalism. Responding to journalism’s culpably poor performance in recent years, they have found that they can do without it – just as they can get by without the elite’s political wing.
In the UK and US, millions of voters are now as estranged from professional journalism as they are disconnected from political institutions. This double dose of alienation can only mean that de-journalisation is as much on the cards as de-politicisation – unless and until journalism takes decisive action to improve its understandably low ratings.
In the UK and US, millions of voters are now as estranged from professional journalism as they are disconnected from political institutions
This is journalism’s last chance saloon. What journalists do now will not only decide the future of journalism; it will also determine whether journalism has a future as the oxygen of public life. Conversely, if journalists get it wrong this time, ‘public’ journalism will become little more than carbon dioxide emitted by the Westminster-Washington bubble.
Now is the time for journalism to prove itself. The present situation calls for journalism to rise to new heights and acquire greater breadth; it needs journalism which is both a forensic attaque and a rigorously humanistic account of significant events, composed in the spirit of generosity and understanding. If journalism is to emerge intact from its current crisis of relevance, it must renew its mission to pursue truth.
This is absolutely necessary – for journalism and for society. But it is also likely to prove difficult, not least because of widespread incredulity towards metanarratives, such as truth. Such ‘incredulity’ was once the exclusive preserve of trendy metropolitans and postmodernists, but it is now ubiquitous in Western society.
Journalism is not solely responsible for this incredulity, nor is it uniquely culpable for current levels of estrangement from the erstwhile public space where metanarratives were customarily forged. Yet some symptoms of the ‘postmodern condition’ have been self-inflicted – on journalism, by journalism. And only journalists can correct these.
During the first decade of the 21st century, professional journalism undermined its own reputation as the bearer of truth. Journalists declared the ‘death of the story’ and the onset of ‘news as a conversation’. The idea was that there’s always someone out there who knows more about the story than we do. In these seemingly self-deprecating assertions, journalists might be said to have written the longest suicide note in history. Thankfully, journalism didn’t go through with it, but serious damage was done.
These statements were merely the most explicit manifestation of journalism’s self-destructive descent from the level of public discourse – that is, talking together about what matters to us all – to a matter of personal perspective. The latter is no place for journalism to operate as the bearer of truth, since at this level there really is no universal truth, only truths (plural) relative to those persons proffering them (to whom they belong, each to their own).