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Journalists need to be watchdogs in the marketplace of ideas

When Donald Trump launched his ‘birther movement’ in the lead up to the 2012 US presidential candidate race, his accusations about President Obama’s place of birth should never have been published in mainstream media. By publishing these demonstrably false accusations, aimed at delegitimising America’s first black President, the media gave the accusations, and in-turn Trump, an unjustified legitimacy. This coverage gave him a key step-up in his eventual rise to power in 2016. We all know how badly that ended.

Do the media ever adequately reflect on the part they played in this international abomination?

The answer is no if you consider the publishing of similarly egregious conspiracy lies in Victoria this week. When Louise Staley, the Victorian shadow treasurer, publicly asked questions about the ‘truth’ of Premier Daniel Andrews’ fall, she was promoting ridiculous and outrageous lies which had been spreading via social media and text message in Melbourne for weeks, all aimed at delegitimising the Premier while he recuperates from a near-fatal back injury. She chose to spread these unsubstantiated and frankly absurd lies as part of an ongoing aggressive Victorian Liberal campaign to smear Premier Andrews and the Labor government.

Did the media have to report these ‘questions’? No, of course they didn’t.

When media professionals complain about fake news, they are usually referring to the spreading of false information on social media. There is no doubt that fake rumours and conspiracies on social media – hello QAnon – are a huge problem which society is yet to adequately address. One way that the mainstream media could help in this fight, a fight to stop the erosion of public decency and trust in evidence and fact – a trust which represents the glue that holds society together – is by correcting false information when it is clear it is spreading out of control on the internet. Such correction would constitute the media fulfilling their most basic role as watchdogs for society – this time not as watchdogs on the powerful, but watchdogs for the quality of information spreading around the marketplace of ideas.

I describe fake news as the publishing of demonstrably false information on any platform whether it be social or mainstream media. By undermining the legitimacy of fake news, journalists are working in the public interest.

The opposite is also true. When the media give unearned legitimacy to fake news, like promoting Staley’s devious ‘question asking’ about the circumstances of Premier Andrews’ injuries, they are working against the public interest. And, they’re giving free rein to illegitimate behaviour, such as Trump’s dishonest birth certificate claims, and Staley’s deceitful spreading of politically motivated gossip.

Another example of the media failing to be watchdogs in the public interest when it comes to correcting false and damaging misinformation was the publishing of outrageous anti-vax conspiracies after a Queensland hairdresser banned covid-vaccinated customers from attending her salon. Her lies about vaccinations seeping out of the vaccinated and causing infertility had already gained unwarranted traction on social media. So why would mainstream news platforms give the misinformation not only more reach to a much wider audience, but also un-earned legitimacy? During a pandemic. When vaccination hesitancy is already a major issue. For clicks? What does that say about the ethics of some in the news industry?

Obama regularly mentioned his frustration at media norms in his memoir ‘A Promised Land’. He said from the start of his presidency, he was not just surprised at how much his Republican opponents peddled ‘half truths or outright lies’, but also by the media’s willingness to publish them. Trump used this willingness to his advantage by making lying a political weapon. His former chief strategist and editor of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, famously admitted this, bragging: “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with sht”. Much sht was thrown, and much was published – The Washington Post tracked Trump’s lies, which counted 25,000 during his presidency. If the strategy is working, why would he do anything differently?

Pleasingly, not all Australian journalists reported Staley’s conspiracy mongering as legitimate questioning of the Premier. And some chose not to report them at all. Yet, too many lazily followed the usual script of blindly repeating every public statement made by a prominent person as if it is automatically newsworthy and legitimate until proven otherwise. This is how fake news flourishes. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s not much you can do to put it back in.

Some media insiders do self-reflect, but even when they identify the problem, it does not seem to have an impact on media routines. For example, after Trump was dragged kicking and screaming from office, retiring executive director of The Washington Post, Martin Baron, admitted journalists and editors should have done a better job holding Trump to account for his lies:

“We had to be much more forthright about Trump’s mendacity, his lies over the course of the administration. We needed to call them that from the very beginning. We were very much operating on good principle; and let’s be fair, he was president, he was duly elected. But he was exploiting that. He was exploiting our principles.”

These ‘principles’ have been weaponised in bad faith by right wing politicians who give no thought to the long-term damage disinformation does to society. As evidence of just how bad this situation has got, a recent survey found one in seven Americans trust the QAnon conspiracy which peddles the laughingly outrageous accusation that the world is run by a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles. It would be funny if it weren’t so scary. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has a close family friend who has been a leading spreader of QAnon nonsense. And of course, QAnon followers made up a huge number of the unhinged crowd who stormed the Capitol Building after being revved into an irrational frenzy by the only voice they seem to trust: Trump.

The sooner the news media act as watchdogs to maintain society’s fragile-grip on reality, rather than undermining it, the better. It is up to journalists if they want to use their power to be part of the problem of disinformation, or help solve it.

This article was originally published on Media Inequality.

15 comments

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  1. susan

    People who call themselves journalists and spread lies just to earn a living are like coal miners who insist that the planet owes them a living. Why can’t these people accept another job and contribute to civilisation?

  2. pierre wilkinson

    not only do we need a federal ICAC, we also need an Integrity Commission into journalists and media organisations

  3. GL

    Taking a sledgehammer to Murdoch’s vile media empire and breaking it up would be more useful.

  4. Andrew J. Smith

    Australian ‘journalists’ have become quite anodyne, monocultural (like most MPs) and fearful of upsetting power dominated by a legacy media oligopoly acting as protection for the LNP. One does not think you can analyse Australian media, especially NewsCorp, through a benign or neutral prism.

    It’s about manipulating ageing voters, making old Labor voters to become angry LNP voters motivated by sociocultural issues.

    Posted this on another related article, and also applicable here ‘The Brainwashing of my Dad’:

    ‘As filmmaker, Jen Senko, tries to understand the transformation of her father from a non political, life-long Democrat to an angry, right-wing fanatic, she uncovers the forces behind the media that changed him completely: a plan by Roger Ailes under Nixon for a media takeover by the GOP, The Powell Memo urging business leaders to influence institutions of public opinion -especially the universities, the media and the courts, and under Reagan, the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine, and The Telecommunications ‘Reform’ Act signed by Bill Clinton….

    ….This documentary shines a light on how it happened (and is still happening) and leads to questions about who owns the airwaves, what rights we have as listeners/watchers and what responsibility does our government have to keep the airwaves truly fair, accurate and accountable to the truth.’

    https://www.thebrainwashingofmydad.com/synopsis

  5. Cando

    True, journos could offer better topic coverage but they are subject to editorial oversight. If the journos don’t like that restriction they find another job. What the public is left with is obvious propaganda and childish narratives. One point of difference I have with this article relates to the QLD hairdresser and her claims that vaccinated people were spreading vaccines. Looks like she has done some research, some vaccines are designed to be spread person to person as shown in the papers below.
    Self-disseminating vaccines for emerging infectious diseases 2015 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4732410/
    Designing transmissible viral vaccines for evolutionary robustness and maximum efficiency 2021 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7920745/ “development of recombinant viral vaccines that are transmissible, and thus capable of self-dissemination through hard to reach populations of wild animals”.
    There are scientific papers back to at least 2007 covering the shedding of oral polio vaccine. This facet of vaccine science is not a hoax.

  6. Roswell

    Great to see you again, Victoria. And a great post you’ve returned with.

  7. Phil Pryor

    We used to be fairly proud, happy, to be here in Australia, with its vague ideas of promise, a fair go, good times, nice attitudes, openness enough, prosperity enough. Some equality was always a promise. Not any more, as turds dispell the stench of supremacist and triumphal class attitude, the conservative them against us, the hopeless. And we are hopeless, most of us, unable to rise up, slaughter, guillotine, revolt, claim correctly we were abused and wronged, for the institutionalised conservative pattern has huge powers of persuasion, money, coercion, force, attraction, recruitment. It’s a world of corporate strength, an established moneyocracy, media perverts, advertising arseholes, general brainwashing, growing disengagement, apathy, disenchantment, alienation, disappointment, submission. People do not seem to care about truth and decency because a disneyish world of overconsumption and advertising lying has them crushed, obtuse. Just hanging in, trying to survive, getting by, surviving another day, fighting off crushing debt burdens, being a good slave and avoiding more severe whippings, all this SHIT is enough for the cowed and beaten. Let us unite in seeking justice, openness, honesty, decency, a well deserved place, all worth a fight.

  8. Terence Mills

    An important article in an era of alternative fact and fake news.

    When Christian Porter called his news conference after concluding a mediation agreement with the ABC over his defamation claim, the media duly lapped up his alternative facts :

    **”Former attorney-general Christian Porter says the discontinuation of his defamation case against the ABC amounts to a “humiliating backdown” for the public broadcaster “no matter what way they want to spin it”.

    “The reason that I determined to bring this action against the ABC, the reason I was willing to go under oath and say what I have always said that the things alleged did not happen, the reason I brought this case is very simple,” he said.

    Mr Porter said the ABC determined not to defend the matter and has been forced to explicitly state the accusations in the article could not be proven to either a civil or criminal standard.

    “Had the ABC not been forced by these proceedings to explicitly say that the accusations could not be proved to either a civil or criminal standard, because of the sensationalist way the story was written readers would have obviously been left with the opposite view,” he said.

    “The ABC has also been forced to express regret at the outcome of their reporting.”**

    That report,from SKY, accurately reported what Porter had said but it failed to note, as other media did, that Porter had not secured an apology (the final sentence was simply not true), there had been no damages settlement let alone the aggravated damages that Porter was seeking, the published article/program was not withdrawn and is still available online (but a clarification had been added by the ABC) and each party paid their own legal costs with the ABC contributing $100K to the costs of mediation. A later attempt by Porter to have a portion of his legal costs paid by the ABC was thrown out by the court.

    Later editorial in the non-Murdoch media correctly, in my view, noted that this was a backdown not by the ABC but by the person who had initiated the defamation action : Christian Porter withdrew his action against the ABC, that’s the unadulterated fact of the matter.

    More to the point the media could have noted that this was a sensible outcome in mediation, one that Oscar Wilde may well, on reflection, have preferred had it been available to him.

  9. DrakeN

    The mainstram commercial media are the propaganda arm and the right-wing Parties the political division of the owners and controllers of the Institute for Pulblic Affairs.
    This needs to be universally recognised: – The commercial MSM exists for the benefit of its owners and their peers – and them alone.

  10. It’s Time

    And the spy who came in from the cold Skye to the Insiders on the ABC is very worrying.

  11. totaram

    And Cando can be added to the list of those spreading F.U.D. about vaccines. Either S/he is woefully ignorant about vaccines and viruses or assumes we are sufficiently ignorant. Thus we should find it justified to think that those vaccinated will be shedding viruses, because research has been done on vaccines that are replicated and shed. It’s all the same it seems.

  12. Ken Fabian

    Commercial media is, if not inherently amoral, then is primed by the nature of their business to abandon morality except as an emotional button pressing inducement to viewers/readers/listeners. The use of advertising to subsidise journalism has been at the cost of principled journalism – and we have come to expect to not have to pay for it.

    Their income comes from inducing people to buy crap they don’t need and in popularising and give legitimacy to political opinions for money – or indirectly in support what their principle customers want (businesses who buy advertising, not readers/viewers). Their power to do so depends on inducing people to watch, read, listen – which inducements devolve to similarly pressing of emotional buttons as is used in advertising.

    The power of emotional button pressing is it’s capacity for disconnecting belief from fact by shortcutting any requirements for fact based rational assessment.

  13. Cando

    totaram, your logic makes no sense. DrakeN, good find. I notice doctors Miraj and Sheel work for the WHO. According to WHO whistleblower Astrid Stuckelberger, WHO is part of the problem not part of the solution. https://www.universallifetools.com/2021/06/who-whistleblower-astrid-stuckelberger/
    Which proves the point, the media can’t win a trick, they continually back the wrong horse because that suits their agenda.

  14. New England Cocky

    Uhm ….. I wonder if the terrorist laws can be used to stifle News Ltd mastheads as contrary to Australian sovereignty best interests. These ”charges” are not allowed to be discussed with anyone, including publishers, and tried in a closed court as we are seeing with Colleary & Witness K..

    Meanwhile, Phil Pryor once again has the correct idea; maintain the rage and –

    “Let us unite in seeking justice, openness, honesty, decency, a well deserved place, all worth a fight.”

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