Doubtless, the recent peak of public interest in all things post-fact is Trump-induced. The man and his myths have been a boon for the clapped-out news media carousel. The post-fact yarn can be spun many ways, developed over days, from front page splashes and TV soundbites of Trump gaffes to space-filling or air-time eating follow-ups, explainers, infographics galore… never mind that many of us passed out through analysis paralysis many moons ago.
Given the weathercock whims of 24-7 news, solid signposts are increasingly hard to spy. Yet aside from the news media’s whirlwind, I see an ‘alternate fact’ of my own reckoning: post-fact is old news. The wide spectrum of fakery dates back decades (some might say centuries). And don’t take my word for this: Everything from faux political campaigning, through phony news and fervent advertising were all called out, way, back in a little-known book by Daniel Boorstin, The Image (1961).
The Boorstin book is hardly read yet highly recommended – genuinely one of those fireflies in the dark. It’s a shame that it is so little known as its pages hold the power to illuminate so much, not just what has been wrong with America, and much of the world, over the decades of the past half century. But if nothing else, Boorstin’s book pre-empts this Trump-led nadir and that thought boomerangs me back to here and now.
Today’s (not so) merry-go-round of news looks like just the next stage in a zero-sum game of nonsense… yet something else (albeit unseen) feels possible. That is the pivot, the potential of what might be: could it be that Trump is a sobering slap in the face to awaken people to the reality of the (pre-existing, ongoing) post-fact age?
This question is one that clanks around my skull as I stumble ahead, solo. Hence my wry smile upon spy-hopping on to this very blog and the Post-Fact Politics events arising in late 2016 and growing in early 2017. My schedule has prevented me from reaching the public events, yet the airing of these discussions has been a welcome sight for sore eyes. The vistas of interest search out in several directions and, happily, that span includes my own focus: the press/broadcast news media.
Backstory? I worked as a (print and multimedia) Journalist for a decade in a major media Plc and thereafter freelanced a decade in multiplatform journalism (though this was most often in parallel to non-journalism roles). In some of my work and beyond I have returned to enact and/or puzzle out how to rebalance press/news media irregularities and biases. Big picture problems persist: the overarching falsehood, for me, is that ‘the fourth estate’ is independent of purse string holders and that they hold the powerful to account.
Various codes and strands of advocacy do exist. For instance, the NUJ’s Code of Conduct. There is (still) a fact checking impetus (as there should be) in journalism (take Channel 4’s fact check blog) and among charitable organisations like Full Fact. Also, there are regulators (or outfits laying claim to that area of work after the PCC closed, 2014). There is a recently formed, seemingly more independent, regulator: Impress. Meanwhile here is a useful read Re the press industry-favoured regulator (read light touch lip service) IPSO.
There are even initiatives that seem to put the onus on the public (not the press). This app, for instance, Across the Aisle, aims to recalibrate reading taste/bias. It looks to be free, yet only available on iOS.
In all of the above, there are potential (sometimes evident) pitfalls at play -ranging from softer conflicts of interest to barely veiled contrivance. Also, there is a glaring irony: the press corps trope of ‘holding the powerful to account, by speaking truth to power’. This is all too often rhetorical hot air, or plain bullshit.
What might be done? This blog feels like the place to at least attempt to spark further discussion and, perhaps in future, propose initiatives that could turn the news mirror about face, and hold the press itself accountable. It is all too easy for the press to distract through its smoke-and-mirrors show or deflect scrutiny by declaiming that one bedrock (long broken) adage: ‘holding those in power to account by speaking truth to power (doing journalism)’.
Here I pause – perhaps with a gentle call to arms, at least for feedback if not full-on crowd-sourcing of ideas and action.
I meanwhile test-learn-adapt prototypes that address what I am sketching in the post above: an upgrade (and ongoing upgrades) to Journalism. My early experiments are largely untried, untested, and unlisted. Here is something relevant though: an under-the-radar Op-Ed piece, albeit noting that I’d rather develop the central idea aired in the post, above, in other ways beyond this ‘think piece’ (April 2016)… https://social.shorthand.com/TFBirch/nggzovprqc/contempt-for-court
Tim Birch. Views expressed are those of the author.