NEW YORK: A moment of revelation arrived a decade ago, after midnight and more than one glass of wine.
I was in a London taxi, sharing a ride with a public relations (PR) man I know, following a dinner we had both attended.
Journalists and PR people have fundamentally different agendas. We have stories to break; they are paid to make sure some stories remain untold. Yet our daily dealings can be quite cordial, even when we’re not sharing wine and cabs. For one thing, PRs read our stories; it’s hard not to like them a bit.
Many also have a way with words and, as we drove through London that night, I remember my fellow passenger making a pithy, if mildly inebriated, observation.
“My job,” he admitted, “is to sow doubt.”
I remembered the times I had called him, looking to confirm a tale I had pieced together from sources far from the press office, only to be told: “Off the record, you haven’t quite got the full picture.” Or the occasions on which he had dodged my probing by questioning my sources’ knowledge, motives or very existence.
Such tactics tend only to delay rather than deter a persistent journalist, but there are times when delay means defeat. And these exchanges are so routine that I had not really considered that the PR might have the explicit mission of undermining my confidence in facts that his boss did not want aired.
My cab companion had honed his skills in British politics, and his words came back to me recently as I sought to understand a challenge of more pressing concern to my trade: the fact that so many people in power have managed to brand what we do as fake.
LESS THAN HALF TRUST THE NEWS
Across the three dozen countries surveyed for the Reuters Institute’s latest Digital News Report, only 43 per cent of people say they trust the news. In countries such as France, Greece and Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the figures are more depressing still.
As with many subjects, one man hogs the headlines.
According to the Trump Twitter Archive, the president of the United States has tweeted about fake news more than 200 times since his inauguration. He wields the phrase creatively, as shorthand for the entire media, as an adjective to append to individual outlets that offend him and as a weapon with which to diminish confidence in those who hold power to account.
So the sources for one NBC story “probably don’t exist”, the man with “@real” in his Twitter handle claimed this month.
“Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?” he mused in another tweet.
These provocations can be relied upon to send journalists into overdrive about the First Amendment, but this misses a broader point. As Joel Simon, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, put it in February last year:
They appear to be part of a deliberate strategy to undermine public confidence and trust by sowing confusion and uncertainty about what is true.
If it is a strategy, it is working spectacularly well. According to a recent Monmouth poll, 77 per cent of Americans now believe that major news outlets report falsehoods. Worse, 42 per cent believe that journalists do so deliberately.
Monmouth didn’t ask how many Americans think journalists focus too much on themselves, but we mustn’t forget that we are not the only targets of this prolific uncertainty-generator.
A NEW RHETORIC OF AMBIGUITY
Asked last summer whether he accepted that Russia had interfered in his election, for example, Trump replied: “I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries ... Nobody really knows for sure.”
Raising the question more recently of why he should not just fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel tasked with investigating if there was collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia, Trump similarly deployed his favourite suspense-keeping phrase: “We’ll see what happens”.
As political communication tactics go, this is radically novel: We don’t expect much straight talk from politicians but we are used to them rallying their tribes around simple, usually simplistic, certainties — “morning in America”, “no new taxes”, “yes we can” — rather than hazy guessing games.
This new rhetoric of ambiguity can be dizzying, even for the faithful.
Earlier this month, Neil Cavuto, a host on Fox News, said to the channel’s best-known viewer:
You’re the president. You’re busy. I’m just having a devil of a time figuring out which news is fake. Let’s just say your own words on lots of stuff give me, shall I say, lots of pause.
As the world’s most newsworthy man sows doubt, contradicts himself and overwhelms signal with noise, it can feel impossible to keep up. And that may be the point.
More than a third of Americans actively tune out the news, according to the Reuters Institute. They are not even seeing the reporting that so aggrieves the president.
So who gets the benefit of the doubt? I think that’s clear.
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the Financial Times’s US business editor.
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