Established players must distinguish themselves through judgment, attention to detail and integrity.
LONDON • With the departure of Mr Stephen Bannon, the White House's chief strategist, almost the entire team which Mr Donald Trump took to Washington at the start of his presidency early this year is now gone.
Whether this will make for a different Trump administration remains to be seen. But it seems certain that, at least in one respect, the churn of personalities in the White House will make no difference: President Trump will continue to dismiss any media criticism as "fake news" and any media outlet he does not like as "failing".
Mr Bannon himself will also continue doing the same; he is, apparently, already back as executive chairman at Breitbart, the far-right news website which originally made him famous, and from where he is now pledging to "go to war for Trump against his opponents - on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America".
And no prizes for guessing the chief targets of this "war": established mainstream media platforms such as The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Britain's state-funded national broadcaster, outlets for which Mr Bannon and Mr Trump have an almost obsessive disdain.
But is this Trump administration strategy of dismissing media criticism as "fake news" and ostracising established mainstream media platforms in the hope of discrediting and disempowering them actually working? The uncomfortable answer which emerges from current surveys of media trends in the industrialised world is that the strategy is indeed working, probably much better than Mr Trump or Mr Bannon ever dared hope.
Recent reports from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Oxford Internet Institute, both based at Britain's Oxford University, indicate that great disparities between the way nations obtain their news and the trust they place in such sources persist.
Nevertheless, the general trend is of a loss of trust in news purveyors. In Britain, for instance, the percentage of people saying that the news they get can be trusted has dropped from 50 per cent to only 43 per cent in the past 12 months, while in the US the figure is 38 per cent. And in most cases, the losers of trust are those which used to enjoy it most: mainstream, established media, now increasingly dismissed as just a collection of self-important individuals seeking to enforce their prejudices on the public.
This is an epic fight for survival which, provided it maintains a clear head and a steady strategy, the established media can still win. And it's one it has to win if the current global order is to be preserved.
FLAWED V FAKE
It's worth recalling that, notwithstanding the unusual sight of a US president picking public fights with media outlets, the phenomenon of fake news predates Mr Trump by at least a few centuries.
Indeed, it could be argued that most of today's established media outlets did start as at least partly fake news operations. Just think of what used to be called the "canards" (ducks), the printed single sheets of paper mostly containing fake, titillating stories sold on the streets of French cities during the 18th century; these gave birth to the country's vigorous media, a tribute acknowledged by France's top satirical newspaper which is still called to this day The Unchained Canard.
Or cast your thoughts back to the so-called "yellow journalism" in the circulation wars of 19th-century New York. Or, indeed, recall the Soviet and Chinese newspapers during the Cold War, reporting daily about happy people chanting adoring slogans about their leaders, while the reality was that, literally, tens of millions were dying of starvation.
So, Mr Trump and his supporters did not invent or spot a new trend. But what they did instead is something even more significant: They have managed to persuade large numbers of people that fake news is the same thing as bad journalism, that fake and flawed journalism are indistinguishable concepts. And they succeeded in doing so by exploiting the current troubles afflicting the established media.
The advent of the Internet removed the established media's exclusivity; anyone can generate content and, at least at first sight, a website created by a teenager in his bedroom can look as professional as that of, say, The Times of London, founded back in 1788.
The proliferation of news also means that information is now a commodity sold at ever-lower prices; the latest Reuters Institute survey shows that even when people get their information from established media sources, it comes to them through news aggregator platforms such as Facebook and Google, and fewer than half of those reading such news actually know what the original source was, so the brand names of established media networks are being eroded. And the less money established media organisations gain, the less resources they can put into their work, the higher the number of mistakes and the more the accusations of "fake news"; this is a perfect example of a vicious circle.
Most of these factors are, by now, well documented. Less well known, however, are two additional developments which have magnified the established media's vulnerabilities. The first is the almost total disappearance of the local press from the Western world; it has been decimated by the lack of advertising revenue, as advertising migrated online. This means that the traditional route into the media for journalists coming from modest families and often modest education backgrounds - which used to be from the local media to the national one - has now been closed. And that, in turn, means that established media in many countries is now even more unrepresentative of the population at large, increasing a sense of alienation.
And then, there is the established media's obsession - particularly in the US - of hitting back at Mr Trump accusations. The editorial, opinion and news pages of most American newspapers are now indistinguishable in the vitriol they pour on the President and CNN recently lost journalists who, in their zeal to uncover Mr Trump's alleged links to Russia, ended up confusing hearsay with evidence.
The intemperate behaviour of the US media towards its president only plays into Mr Trump's argument that the established media is incorrigibly biased, and should simply be ignored.
What can be done to reverse this depressing race to the bottom? Actually, a great deal. First, established media networks should disconnect from this ping-pong game with the US President; let him do his worst, while the media does its best by showcasing its work.
Second, the established media should keep a sense of proportion. Although trust in its operations is down, the established media is still far more trusted than the huge variety of social media and websites available. It is also able to attract new supporters: The New York Times and the Washington Post have added hundreds of thousands of subscribers since Mr Trump came to power, and many are the sort of young readers everyone predicted will never return to established media.
But above everything else, the established and often older media should do what differentiates it most from all its newer competitors: retain a rigorous attention to detail, display a careful balance of judgment, and adhere to integrity and transparency in using its sources. It is not Mr Trump as such, but the "shallowness of understanding" which is "journalism's greatest bane", writes Mr John Lloyd, a veteran British journalist, in a recently published book on the subject.
Either way, there should be no doubt what is at stake here. Fake news is not some modern affliction of little consequence; instead, it means fiction, deliberately presented as non-fiction with the intent of persuading people to doubt verifiable information. As such, it is almost always corrosive of law and order, almost always disruptive to the survival of our current social and political systems.
Without being able to agree on shared verifiable facts, there can be no legitimacy in public debate, and little informed decision-making. Without a responsible media which agrees on the basic facts while disagreeing on how to interpret them, there can be no emerging consensus on how to tackle security questions, such as, say, the terrorist threat. And without being able to distinguish between fact and fiction, more young men and women may volunteer to commit violence; fake news is one of the biggest drivers for radicalisation.
So, the debate about how to protect the established media from the current onslaught and how to restore trust in news is not some nice academic pursuit, but an urgent task.
For fake news can cost lives.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Mainstream media's epic fight against fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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