Writing about that dubious apercu we call ‘fake news’, as popularised by the present occupant of the White House, one feels almost duty-bound to start by quoting the great British newspaper editor Charles Prestwich Scott – better known as C.P. Scott.
The name may be unfamiliar to American readers – it is scarcely known to British readers – but in a May 1921 essay he penned a famous line, one that has guided journalists ever since, at least those in English-speaking circles on this side of the Atlantic. The words are these: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”.
In the same article he also wrote: “A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community; it may even affect wider destinies. It is, in its way, an instrument of government. It plays on the minds and consciences of man. It may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the opposite. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influences are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces.”
I doubt that any self-respecting newspaper editor in the Anglophone world – or for that matter television news executive (which I think Scott would have mentioned had such things existed in his time) would argue with a single one of those words. Most newsmen, whether in print or broadcasting, strive daily and mightily to match Scott’s ideals. If some occasionally fall short, it is not for the worst of reasons, and so may be defined as no more than a lapse of judgement. Newsmen are entitled to an occasional slip from high standards, even in matters of truth. What they must not do is set low standards in the first place.
In my younger years I worked as a journalist for a much respected (and unprofitable) news agency, Reuters, a newspaper cooperative that later became a profitable public company as a (highly profitable) vendor of electronic market information. In doing so it retained both its news service and its respect. At no time during the years that I was there did I ever observe or even suspect any attempt to alter facts or to introduce bias. Doing either would have been a firing and career-ending offence. In reporting the news, we knew instinctively that facts were sacred. Unlike print publication, we had no leader-writers to voice opinions, but even newspapers clearly identified such articles as opinions, as they still do.
Most editorials reflect the views of the paper’s owners. In my day they were called Press Barons, now almost an extinct breed. Those that remain are largely personified in the figure of Rupert Murdoch, whose baronetcy is now New York City. The political views of Mr Murdoch, who owns the reliably conservative Wall Street Journal and the even more blatantly conservative Fox News, are famously malleable – one might say mercenary; that is, largely dependent on which way the political or commercial winds are blowing. He himself is a right-winger, so naturally, his outlets, both print and broadcast, favour a right-wing agenda. So, by the way, do most big-city American papers – some it must be said to the far right.
Murdoch almost single-handedly undermines Mr Trump’s regular accusations that the media have a liberal bias, that they are dead set against him and anything he does, and that they make the news up as they go along. That said, the two most influential, the New York Times and the Washington Post, the president’s twin nemeses, do tend to a liberal point of view, though only of late years and not, I would say, consistently so.
Mr Trump’s selective ire is directed largely at those two newspapers and the broadcasters NBC and CNN. At the risk of losing my liberal friends, I would say he is sometimes right to be irritated. I say so reluctantly, since I agree with most of what they say, but it seems to me that most American news outlets are in danger of becoming as polarised, or even as irrational, as their readers and viewers. As awful as the right-wing ravings of presenters and commentators on Fox may be, those on NBC and CNN
arguably do an equally effective job presenting a countervailing liberal viewpoint. Their excuse is that they are covering a president whose childish deceits are as rampant as his statesman-like utterances are absent, but I worry about them all the same.
Still, for all the polarising and posturing that seems to be going on, my guess is that none of the leading media companies, print or broadcast – not even the regularly despicable Fox – has gone so far as to invent news. It does not happen; the stakes are too high for any organisation found to be doing so. Trump’s ‘Fake News’ trope, of course, is itself entirely an invention, a political stratagem dreamed up by Steve Bannon, a former ear-bender in the Oval Office, to appeal to the traditional and irrational prejudice against the media among so-called forgotten Americans. This has always existed among the core voters in that weird constituency called Trumpland (not so much a geographical entity but a state of mind).
‘Out there’ a healthy cynicism about the press has always been evident, manifested in that time-honoured phrase “I don’t believe half of what I read in the papers”. Trump’s peculiar genius has been to turn the phrase into a mantra. Now his supporters can say “I don’t believe anything I read in the papers (or watch in the media)”. Just what or who they do believe as an alternative remains a mystery. The unsourced material in social media, I suppose. Equally inexplicable to me is why so many people are so readily prepared to accept the word of a politician with an obvious axe to grind, while rejecting that of an observer whose essential function is to question it.
There may well be, almost certainly are, corrupt journalists – just as there are corrupt politicians, bent policemen, and suspect hedge-fund managers. They are rare exceptions. Many write for supermarket check-out tabloids that can’t be taken seriously as purveyors of the truth and do not even subscribe to that ideal. The same goes for sponsored web-sites that employ propagandists rather than journalists and which subject nothing they publish to the careful methods of editorial scrutiny employed by respectable publications.
There is no media conspiracy against Donald Trump except in his own delusional mind. He himself set the deceitful agenda for his administration on his first day in office, when, as many of you will remember, the first dispute between the White House and the media was over something as marginal as the size of the crowd that attended Mr Trump’s inauguration. Even in the face of incontrovertible video evidence to the contrary, Trump insisted that his crowd was the biggest attendance ever seen at the event – more to the point much bigger than that which showed up for Barack Obama’s inauguration.
But to this president ‘incontrovertible’ is a word that does not exist. After all, as a White House aide remarked at the time, and with a straight face, there are ‘alternative truths’. No, there are not.
Other equally puerile fabrications have followed from this White House, all of them designed to pump up the resentments of Trump’s supporters, and conversely to provoke his critics to overreact. It seems to be working all too well.
The media are right to take the president to task for lying to the nation, especially when it is a means of dividing it for his own narrow purposes. That is the essential remit of a free press in any democracy.
If I have one fear, it is that such provocations will persuade unwary opponents to follow him down the same low road that he has taken.
Until then, or until Trump makes the conscious decision to moderate his ‘enemy of the people’ rhetoric – unlikely on all the evidence to date – the media deserve the benefit of the doubt. The Fourth Estate may be imperfect, but is palpably not more so than the present occupant of the Oval Office, and with a less vested interest in being so.