Pontius Pilate and the Journalists
“Quid est veritas” is the Vulgate’s version of the Greek original “Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια.” In the Gospel According to John, during the questioning of Jesus by Roman Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, one of the most significant, philosophical questions is asked by Pilate to Christ: “What is Truth?” (John 18:38). There has been no small amount of theological, philosophical, and literary analysis of this question, the questioned, and the questioner. Certainly, it passes down to us as a fundamental question of our humanity and how we interact with the world.
However, this is a politics site, not one concerned with existential questions about the nature of the human condition. Consequently, we will relate the famous question to the way in which we, as individuals, are relating to news and information in the 21st Century. While this may seem a tad less important than a discourse on the salvation of mankind, it nonetheless presents an interesting challenge in how we view our political dynamics and what this could mean for future generations.
Here’s the concern: around American institutional media sources, there is a growing discontent about what is derisively being called “fake news.” This isn’t the casual dismissal of conservative-leaning FoxNews as “FauxNews,” but rather a deeper concern about the growth of non-industry blogs, websites, and clickbait that undermines the ability of established media sources from creating a narrative.
Now, that characterization may seem unfair to established media. Perhaps it is. See, therein lies the problem. As we’ve discussed numerous other times on this site, Americans’ trust in institutions, especially the media, is at its nadir. This zeitgeist manifests in different ways, but, when we look under the surface, we understand the myriad of interlocking concerns that are driving people towards distrust.
Before we dive deeper, it’s important to point out that this isn’t a screed against scrutiny of sources or informed-doubt. Distrust of institutions is, more-often-than-not, rooted in some kernel of fact that has diminished the reputation of the establishment. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has faced significant scrutiny in the face of the clerical abuse scandals that rocked the Church in the past two decades. Certainly this has done its part to erode the perception of moral or intellectual authority of the Church in society. This is not merely a Catholic phenomenon, but it is simply a concrete example of how factual situations have shaped declining trust.
Now we turn to the institutional media. Terms are important in this case. What do we mean by the “institutional media?” For the purpose of our discussion, this term will mean “news sources of record.” More simply, “big news.” Examples of these sources would be the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun. It would also include CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC, and the “nightly news” programs on NBC, CBS, and ABC.
From nearly every angle of the institutional media, from “Fact Checking” to the Opinion pages, there has been a concerted effort to crack down on Fake News. There are two potential reasons behind this. One is the “veneer” reason. That is, the reason that is being put forward as the rationale. The second is probably the real, though cynical, reason.
The first reason is obvious: journalism wants to protect the facts. Certainly people believing whatever they read online is dangerous. Regardless of your feelings about the institutional media, the reality where someone can post anything on the internet without attribution or research creates an environment where, quite literally, anything can be written. Most people, implicitly, understand this situation. Hence the healthy skepticism most people have about what they read on the internet. Sites like Wikipedia, which have become staples of real research, have taken steps of professionalize and source material that they publish. Fly-by-night websites don’t have those resources or capabilities.
As we are also aware, sensationalism sells. People like clicks and retweets. Analytics and making money on the internet are based less on good, insightful writing and more about how many people you can drive to read and share your writing. In the situation where we find ourselves when nearly anyone with a computer can post online, we have the situation where less-than-scrupulous individuals will post sensational stories in order to drive traffic. While this, in itself, isn’t dangerous, the problem arises when average folks are unable to discern between the sensationalism and the truth. Sometimes, especially in poorly sourced material, the “truth” the article attempts to convey is a fabrication.
While this “Fake News” phenomenon is certainly growing (just look at your liberal or conservative family members’ Facebook and Twitter feeds for examples), it’s not new. Print journalism sources like the National Enquirer and other tabloids have been doing the “Fake News” bit for generations. The problem now, however, is that a story written online can be sent around the world and read by tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes.
Enter the establishment media. Per the “first reason” to crusade against “Fake News,” that is, because some stories are notably fabricated, journalists have undertaken to fact check and label articles fake as a “service” to their fellow denizens of the internet. Sure, there’s something disturbingly smug and self-righteous about self-declared keepers of the chronicles descending to separate news wheat from fake news chaff, but we can assume that many of the attempts are done in earnest. The problem is, especially given the fact that we have “objective journalists” actively sharing their hot takes (that is, opinions and quips) about the news on social media, the line between news and opinion is frequently blurred.
It’s not that we don’t want journalists to have opinions. It’s foolish to think that people don’t have views on important issues. However, even the “veneer” of objectivity is important when we are dealing with sensitive issues. It is certainly justifiable to label articles “fake news” when they can be proven fake. However, what about the situation where you have analysis mixed with fact? For example, is it fake news when Donald Trump exaggerates a number, as he is wont to do when making a point? Most average folks don’t really care. We understand that Trump is making a point and that the number he cites isn’t that important. Now, would I prefer that he use real figures? Sure. However, labeling it “fake” or, per a fact checker “false” doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Recently, the Washington Post had to print a lengthy Editor’s Note on a story about fake news in which it admitted that its own coverage was based on false sources (Here). Certainly in an environment where the institutional media claims to have the upper hand, stories like this directly undercut their claim to moral authority.
The second, more cynical, reason for why the press has undertaken to call out “fake news,” and to label political opponents as purveyors of the same, is that institutional media sources are desperate to regain market share. Certainly this election showed that the establishment media sources had less power over the shaping of popular opinion than they thought they had. This isn’t to assume that there is some “backroom cabal” orchestrating the outcome of elections, but it is to say that, when most every institutional media outlet undertook to delegitimize one candidate for President in its opinion pieces and news coverage, there’s a strong indicator of preference. (This was recently confirmed by a Harvard study here: http://shorensteincenter.org/news-coverage-2016-general-election/).
Given declining circulation and the prevalence of alternative media sources online, it’s clearly in the business interest of established outlets to question the legitimacy of other sources. Yes, this is a hyper-cynical view of the press, but, let’s remember, the major news outlets in the United States are owned by very powerful corporate interests. Again, this isn’t a conspiracy, it just makes sense. Successful businessmen are running media outlets and want them to be profitable. That’s not a bad thing. They see competition from alternative sources and they are threatened. Just like a thousand other industries, the established brands will do what they can to innovate up to a point, then try to bury the more nimble and growing competition.
In a concrete way, we saw the late Andrew Breitbart’s eponymous news site go from being unknown to being on the tongue of every journalist in the span of mere months. Given the background of trust in institutions being at an all-time-low, a candidate who is challenging traditional norms, and a media that is not equipped to provide factual coverage free of editorializing, the situation arose that consumers flocked in droves away from the perceived bias to new sources. This migration was compounded by the social-media spiral of people being able to self-select their sources of information.
Thus, we have reached the existential question where we began: what is truth (in media)? This is the question that major news outlets will have to ask themselves. If the current phase of denial and cursing “Fake News” continues, it will only continue the downward spiral of Americans’ perception of institutional news. If, on the other hand, there is a concerted effort to make the clear distinction between news, opinion, and analysis, then perhaps the trust that so many have decided not to place in established sources may be able to return.
However, we know how the Gospel story ended: Pilate gave in to the will of the crowd and failed to see what actually had to be done. Can the media resist the same fate?